The Pulse

Chapter 27 of Ghost in the Machine

Nine hours before the attack on Feros.

“Movement during this phase of diagnostics is discouraged. Please remain still.”

Saren grunted a quiet reply without looking at the geth platform. Without looking at what it was doing. His stare was fixed on the pulse of the power core output. Identical red strings of monospace letters indicated that Sovereign was running at optimal capacity. He could lose himself in watching it – bring forth that strange feeling of detachment that had been visiting him with an increasing frequency. As if he were watching himself from elsewhere. Perhaps from the recesses of the dark, domed ceiling, or that small opening in the wall, near Benezia’s station, that had appeared overnight. To a creature hiding there – and it would have to be some vile, spiny, wormlike atrocity, with hundreds of beady eyes and a black, gaping anus in place of a mouth, oozing some slime to help it squirm through the unclean bowels of the living ship – to a creature living in that terrifying hole, the bridge would appear shadowy and deserted, with sleeping terminals and silent lights twinkling weakly from equipment on standby. One barefaced turian, motionless, barely breathing, and a geth, examining the deeply nested circuitry in the turian’s artificial arm. Only the power core status would seem to be alive, scrolling up the holo-pillar in its infinite, unfathomable, hypnotizing rhythm: 61.32, 61.37, 61.34, 61.35, 61.37… Saren took a deep breath and held it until his own pulse started slowing down. 61.35, 61.32, 61.29, 61.25, 61.21.

“Arterius, Agent,” the platform said, breaking his fascination. “We have an inquiry.”

He let the air out and turned his head slowly, but couldn’t tear his eyes from the display. 61.42.

“Ask,” he said.

“You have been repeatedly informed that the probability of a late-onset malfunction in the neural interface is negligible. This is the seventh time you have asked for invasive diagnostics nevertheless. We would like to know why.”

Saren finally looked at the platform. He had been asked the same question on six of the seven occasions. And each time, the answer had been the same. “Sometimes it moves on its own.”

Sometimes, he’d find it curled into a fist so tight that the talons penetrated the flesh to the bone. He had more scars on his synthetic palm than on the entirety of his organic body. Sometimes, he’d wake to find fresh cuts on his left thigh or faint bruises on his neck: one dark fingerprint on the left, two on the right side of his wind-pipe. Sometimes he’d put his pistol on the table and wonder which hand would get to it first.

The platform didn’t ask any more questions. Instead, it retracted the long, needle-like probe, taking with it a single, perfectly round droplet of bright blue blood. “Please repeat the test.”

He wriggled his fingers, then tapped the designated areas on the console in quick succession. The board lit green: perfect coordination. Which was anything but surprising. The performance of the arm had never been in question.

Long after the geth had departed, Saren remained sitting still, in silence. Alone. As much as one could be, inside a Reaper. Benezia was gone, her workstation powered down and emptied of her personal belongings for the first time in months. It was both a relief, and a source of anxiety. Sending her away was an enormous risk. A risk made necessary not by the urgency of the campaign, but by the unexpected severity of the… symptoms. The intermingling of their dreams and memories had been disturbing, but it had been expected, and it hadn’t affected their performance. But then it had started spilling over to real-time sensation, and that had cost them yet another beacon.

His insides knotted, mandibles closing around his chin. A change in the rhythm attracted his attention. 61.55, 61.58, 61.56, 61.62. He snorted. You have no right to complain, he told Sovereign in the privacy of his thoughts. You could have intervened, yet you didn’t.

The voice remained silent.

Saren’s contact on Therum had reported that the research team had found a way into an untouched, circular chamber. It could have been nothing; it could have been exactly what they had been waiting for. After Eden Prime, hiding was no longer a priority. He had intended to go to Therum in force, land Sovereign, and secure the site in one swift strike. It would have been a simple operation: the Alliance had begun to pull troops from distant, isolated colonies, amassing the fleets around their core worlds instead. Therum had been left with nothing but automated planetary defenses and the security detail employed by EAE.

But as the hour had drawn near, Benezia had started crumbling. The sudden intensity of her emotion had thrown Saren off completely. He had been unable to reason with her. For one, it would have been hypocritical: he had allowed himself the chance to save his loved one, why should she be denied the same? But there had been more to it. That basic instinct to protect her child, that blind, deaf, ferocious fear – it had tainted him as well. Clouded his judgment. If he had been in his right mind, he would never have agreed to send a recon unit first. He would not make the same mistake on Feros.

His omni buzzed, interrupting the reverie. A message from Benezia.

“I arrived safely. The project is in good health, but communication is… difficult. You know of what I speak. I will keep you informed.”

He nodded. Then shook his head. Nihlus would be on top of her in a matter of hours.

“Do not linger,” he typed back, chest tightening. A glance at the core output. 61.84.

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