The Hearing

Chapter 11 of Ghost in the Machine

The hall echoed with their heavy footsteps in the perpetual violet twilight. Nihlus felt as if he were walking through a dream. Everything had a halo of unreality about it. The ancient trees with leaves of gold and brown, never touched by the autumn winds. The deserted paths, watched over by ghosts of countless generations. The glass chasm dividing the pleaders from the judges. But the most unreal of all was the life-sized holo of Saren in the witness stand, shimmering in the distance.

Nihlus shook his head in a desperate attempt to clear his mind, but that only reminded him of the headache. He was falling apart, and the pain was just the tip of the iceberg. Morbid thoughts were attacking him, stabbing him, shredding him from within. Ever since he’d woken up in the sick bay of the Normandy, he’d been investing all his energy into focusing on mundane things to keep the sickening images from the beacon away. It had worked well at first, for there had been reports to review, and calls to make, and unpleasant conversations to be had.

Until he’d received the message.

The world is changing, Nihlus.

His throat collapsed and he had to gasp for air. Sharp talons, black and shiny, clawed at his guts again in a soft lover’s stroke. They had been bleeding him little by little and soon, he felt, he’d just slump down and die. After the message, the images had become an almost welcome distraction.

“You okay?” Shepard asked, putting a hand on his arm.

Nihlus brushed it away. He’d nearly forgotten about the humans hurrying behind him. They were getting close, and Saren looked in their direction. The monochrome sepia of the projection was hiding the cybernetic glow of his eyes well. Too well. Nihlus was reminded of the old days, when he’d been able to admire their natural predatory shine with some understanding of the fire burning within.

The past remains the better place.

Oh yes. Those had been simpler times. Before politics, before companies, before implants and prosthetics.

Captain Anderson was standing with Ambassador Udina at the end of the Pleader’s Bridge, and the three Councilors were in their usual positions on the other side. Fragments of a heated debate reached Nihlus as they approached, and he caught Shepard’s worried glance in the corner of his eye. This would be tricky for both of them. She’d have to play the cards that Anderson had given her; and Nihlus, he’d have to dance, blindfolded, to the music Saren hummed in his stubborn, crazy head. It had been a whole decade, and Nihlus had become one of the top agents of the Council, but still he knew, deep inside, that he could do nothing but follow Saren’s lead.

Where I’m going, you can’t follow.

Oh, but I will. He caught the cold stare and invested all his spite into communicating a brief but essential message through his own: I’m not letting go. Do you hear me? I will not let go.

Saren must have caught it, because he flexed his prosthetic arm. A new word in the vacant vocabulary of his body language: one that had found use in the recent years to betray frustration. Nihlus wondered, and not for the first time, if the arm was all that had been replaced with a graft. He could count their private meetings since that horrible accident by his fingers, and with each one, their greetings had been more awkward, their conversations more distant, their goodbyes more final. The message had shattered him, but it had not surprised him.

You must have known this would happen.

Had he known? Really? No. Nihlus wasn’t into projecting and predicting. That was Saren’s thing. But he’d felt it. In a way, he’d been waiting for it. As much as he’d rejoiced at that sudden invitation, he’d also feared it. As much as his heart had sunk at having to reject it, he’d also been relieved. But Spirits, why now? Why like that? Saren was many things, but he was no coward.

He was no coward, and he was certainly no criminal, rogue, or a traitor. The things these people wanted to pin on him… Nihlus felt his stomach twist in anger. Ridiculous!

And yet, unsettling. Garrus believed it. Which would normally bear no more weight than Anderson’s unhidden malevolence, but unlike Anderson, Garrus had something. Nihlus had heard it in his voice, in the way he’d talked to Pallin, unaware of other curious ears. Saren’s hiding something.

Ha. Of course Saren’s hiding something. Saren’s always hiding something. But not treason. Saren would never betray the Council. That would go against all his values, against his very essence. Not exactly an argument Nihlus could use in a public debate, but it was more than enough to solidify his certainty that it was all nonsense.

Dirty. Anderson played dirty. Blinded by the optimistic prospect of cross-species collaboration, Nihlus had kept nothing from him. Just before Eden Prime, they talked over a meal in captain’s quarters like old friends, even though that had been their first meeting. The conversation seemed to gravitate naturally towards topics related to Saren, since both of them had been his students, even if Anderson’s candidacy had ended in disaster. His opinions sounded moderate, his bitterness subdued despite that fact. And of course they spoke quite a bit about Saren’s distaste for humans. Nihlus went out of his way to explain that Saren’s venom only found purchase in the ears of so many opponents of human expansion because Humanity kept acting in ways that reinforced his claims: aggressive, loud, selfish, unrefined, demanding a place in a society built on time-honored traditions while rejecting some of its core values. Anderson had looked thoughtful, if not entirely convinced.

And after Eden Prime, Nihlus had been too sick to pay attention. He only remembered the debriefing through a fog of confusion, and even though he’d sensed that Anderson’s interest in Saren’s unscheduled appearance went beyond surprise and curiosity, he hadn’t had the energy to dig under the surface. The way Anderson had stepped over his authority in making Shepard file the report to the Council before Nihlus had had a chance to review it had been suspicious as well. But the report had been accurate, if overly-focused on matters of questionable relevance, so Nihlus had decided to turn a blind eye to the breach of protocol. Then Tevos had told him about the petition from the human embassy, demanding to know what Saren was doing on Eden Prime, and other, even more outrageous things. And in going through with it, Humanity was at risk of losing a valuable ally in Nihlus. He had never been closer to stepping over to Saren’s side of that three-decade-old argument than he was now, when Saren no longer wanted his company.

Do not attempt to find me.

The irony burned. And the thought of burning called forward a memory that was not his own. He remembered burning flesh, liquefied bone, a screaming life-form crucified in the grasp of some unfathomable torture machinery. He remembered the pain. But worse than the pain, was the utter hopelessness. They cannot be stopped.

He swallowed back the nausea and shook his head again, attracting Saren’s attention. Nihlus aimed a stubborn stare at him. Why now, you bastard? And why the hell did I have to touch that damned thing?

They drew near, and the ongoing conversation started making sense.

“… at point blank range,” Anderson was saying. “That was no ‘friendly fire.’ Powell was executed.”

“What do you have to say about this?” said Tevos, turning to Saren.

“The human made a sudden movement in the middle of a combat situation,” Saren replied without a trace of excitement or anything other than bemusement in his voice. He glanced at Nihlus. “My hand twitched.”

At that, Sparatus stifled a smile, and Anderson’s face became set with a deep frown. It was nonsense, of course. All of this was nonsense.

“Saren wasn’t supposed to be on Eden Prime in the first place,” Udina said, directing it to Tevos. Everybody spoke to Tevos, because she stood in the middle and appeared the least intimidating. Talk about a misconception. “Captain Anderson’s mission was top secret.”

“Spectres have full access to all channels of the Council Notification System,” Sparatus replied in a slow, bored tone. “The distress call from your colony wasn’t even flagged classified.”

Anderson’s sarcastic scoff made Nihlus wince. “And of all the Spectres with access to it, he came to the rescue?”

Udina shot a warning glance at him and cleared his throat. “What the Captain meant to say, is that Saren’s constant intrusions into the membership negotiations between the Alliance and the Council – with clear intentions to obstruct our candidacy – are a matter of public knowledge. This is not the first time we have been forced to file an official complaint and…”

“That has nothing to do with the attack on your colony and the reason for this meeting.” Sparatus waved dismissively. “Nothing you presented here supports the…”

“This is a charade.” Anderson stepped forward, closer to the edge. “Everybody knows that Saren hates humans. The only possible reason for his presence there during the attack was that he orchestrated it in the first place!”

A sudden silence fell over the assembly and Anderson’s hand, pointing at Saren in the universal gesture of accusation, hung in the air like a forgotten prop on an abandoned stage. Nihlus had been balancing on his toe-tips, and now he set down with an audible thump. All eyes turned to him.

“I resent these accusations,” he said. “Saren is a fellow Spectre, and a friend. I will not stand by and watch as you slight his name with nothing to back up your ridiculous claims.”

“He murdered a human in cold blood!” Anderson was still pointing his finger at Saren. “He doesn’t even deny it!”

“Captain Anderson,” Saren said, a rare smile ghosting over his face. “You always seem to be involved when humanity makes false charges against me.” He turned to direct his malice at Shepard, resuming in his most condescending tone. “And this must be your protégé, Commander Shepard. The one who let the beacon get destroyed.”

That was a low blow and Nihlus almost spoke up in her defense, for now she was his protégé as well. But Shepard was faster. “How do you know about the beacon?” she said, unfazed. “You weren’t even there.”

“Nihlus sent me your Eden Prime report. I was unimpressed. But what can you expect… from a human?”

Nihlus closed his eyes. In any other circumstance, he would have smiled. Saren had a special ability to weave unbelievable amounts of disdain into his words, and use it to bring out the worst in people. It never failed.

“This is exactly what I was talking about,” Anderson said. “Saren despises Humanity. That’s why he attacked Eden Prime!”

Another spell of electrified silence ensued. There was so much tension in the air that Nihlus could almost hear it, a high-pitched vibration exciting his entire body into a state of battle-readiness. Tevos was frowning, and that did not bode well.

“These are serious charges, Ambassador. The geth attack is a matter of great concern, but there is nothing to indicate that Saren was involved in any way.”

Anderson started to reply, but Udina lifted a hand to stop him. “Of course not,” he said. “The Captain spoke hastily. We only ask the Council to censure his open racism and public displays of hostility towards Humanity.”

“Your species needs to learn its place,” Saren said in tones so saturated with gloating that there was no doubt the humans could pick them up. “You’re not ready to join the Council. You’re not even ready to join the Spectres.”

Now Udina raised a hand to point at Saren. “That is the reason for our complaints. He has no right to say that. It’s not his decision!”

“Shepard’s admission into the Spectres is not the purpose of this meeting,” Tevos said, signaling Saren to drop the issue. A significant look was enough; Nihlus recognized it, and so did Saren.

“This meeting has long outlived its purpose,” he said. “The facts have been laid down and there is nothing left to discuss. The humans are wasting your time, Councilor. And mine.”

“Do you have anything else to add concerning this topic, Ambassador?” said Valern, speaking for the first time.

Udina sighed and shook his head. “Not at this time, no.”

And just like that, the tension let up, with more than one quiet sigh of either resignation or relief. Everyone seemed to relax a little and the Councilors turned to their terminals. But Nihlus couldn’t relax. On the contrary. Something like panic had seized his chest and suddenly it was difficult to breathe, a dreadful realization fighting to assert itself through the layers of numbness and exhaustion: this might well be it. The last time.

We can never meet again.

He couldn’t process the notion. It had no meaning for him, like a phrase in an alien language. He looked up to find Saren looking back. Nothing could be read from his face, not a hint of either gratitude or remorse. That finally sparked of something recognizable in him: anger.

Fuck you, Nihlus told him through the stare, and Saren’s left mandible made a minuscule flick in recognition.

“The Council has found no reasons to question Saren’s report from Eden Prime,” Tevos announced, addressing Udina. “Your petition to mount an investigation is denied.”

Anderson’s head hung in defeat, and Saren nodded. “I’m glad to see justice was served.”

As Valern started enumerating the remaining items on the agenda, Saren exchanged one last glance with Nihlus. Then his holo vanished.

I release you from any commitment you might think you owe me.

Detached from the reality of his surroundings, detached from the surreal emptiness within, Nihlus kept staring at the vacant witness stand. He didn’t believe it. Any of it. He even managed to smile.

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