Chapter 37 of Ghost in the Machine
Four hours before the attack on Virmire.
“How do you feel?”
Like a madman, about to run into an unsuspecting crowd with twenty kilos of explosives strapped to his chest.
He didn’t say that. He didn’t say anything for a long time, looking for the right words. It seemed inevitable that words would fail. Nobody has ever done anything like this; she’d said so herself. What good would his answer do if there was no point of comparison, no context to give it meaning?
He felt… a restlessness in his limbs. A kind of itch, deep inside his muscles, a longing to flex and stretch mixed with a certainty that no amount of flexing or stretching could make it go away. Only a savage release of power could make it go away. Yet, he didn’t precisely want to be rid of the tension. It was enjoyable in itself, like sexual excitement.
He felt… a strange alertness to minute stimuli that normally got filtered out. The light reflecting from her teeth when she spoke; the shadows of her many fingers when she tapped them against keys in rapid succession; the minuscule bumps of night insects hitting the windows from the outside.
He felt… a profound exhaustion, not of body but of mind and soul, lurking all around the edges of his awareness, closing in on him when he wasn’t paying attention so that his island of control and clarity seemed smaller and smaller every time he looked at it.
But none of that would be of use to her.
“Strange,” Saren said at last, then shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“Any pain or discomfort?”
“Any pins and needles?”
“In the back.”
Rana nodded, and stepped behind him. He heard the diagnostic drone come online and felt the focused warmth of its lasers trailing along his spine. When they touched the amplifiers, the pins and needles turned into burning. And then, it was all gone, both the tickle and the burn.
“I adjusted the voltage. Can you repeat the test, please?”
He put his right hand on the steel sphere.
“Try the left hand.”
He turned to look at her. His movement was reluctant. There was indeed neither pain nor discomfort in his neck anymore, but his body had yet to start believing it.
“What difference does it make? I prefer the right.”
Her dotted tattoos, presumably intended to mimic hairy human eyebrows, lifted up in equal parts surprise and apprehension. He hadn’t intended to growl at her, but he didn’t intend to apologize for it either.
“Oh, certainly, certainly.” She licked her lips nervously. “But… as I’m sure you know… biotics are heavily affected by bipedal neural symmetries. Right hand – left hemisphere; left hand – right hemisphere. We need to make sure the nerve conductivity and amp response times on both sides are the same, else you risk another overload.”
The image her words evoked in his mind was vivid and hypnotizing. He pictured himself, facing Nihlus in combat, and reaching – unwillingly – to deal a lethal biotic blow with his left hand, and at the same time, reaching to stop the motion with his right hand. A nightmarish struggle where he literally, physically, fought himself, the organic against the synthetic, the emotional against the reasonable, to the horror of his lover and adversary. In the end, the synthetic part, placing no value on the ephemera of a mortal’s sense of unique self, destroyed him whole by abusing his bipedal neural symmetry.
But of course that wasn’t what she meant. He shook the image off, saying, “The overload had nothing to do with… symmetry violation.” He hesitated, though it made no sense to keep it a secret. Her usefulness was directly proportional to the completeness and accuracy of the information he made available to her. Yet he didn’t want to tell her. Something inside him was mounting a resistance. He swallowed. “It was—“
He was relieved to find no traces of sympathy in her expression. If anything, she appeared to be fascinated, and when she spoke, she sounded excited for the first time since he’d met her.
“I guessed as much from the trauma to neural tissue. I’d say you’ve taken it… prodigiously well.” She licked her lips again. “I’d say you’re being handled with great care, sir.”
Is that so.
A silence fell in the lab, interwoven with the muted drone of instruments and ventilation and the distant vibration of the power generators not far below. Saren had never been here before, but it seemed familiar enough; sometimes it seemed he had spent as much of his life in labs and hospitals as he had in the field.
“Sir? It is highly recommended that you do this test anyway.”
He sighed. “I never used the prosthetic hand for biotics. I don’t even know if I can.”
“I don’t see why not. If I remember correctly—“ she paged through his medical records, conspicuously spread over the primary display, “your axillary nodule was untouched. Anyway, you must have gone through tests such as this before. It’s standard procedure.”
“Not since… the accident.” There it was again, the resistance, the same kind of resistance. He heaved a heavy breath. “The last implantation was before.”
“Uh… I beg to differ, sir. These last two are recent.”
Yes, of course they are. They had to be. How could he have forgotten? He shivered at her slight touch, fingertips on the small of his back, sparks jumping to meet them. But he barely noticed, caught in a dizzying swirl of half-recollections. Not eight, not nine. Ten.
His island, surrounded by an unending dark ocean, suddenly shrank to a pinpoint. Saren had to invest all his faculties into pushing back the despair.
“Goddess,” she whispered. “You didn’t know.”
He made no reply. Instead, he put his left hand on the sphere and released the accumulated power in a dramatic, wild display. Blue sparks exploded up like fireworks, then rained down gently on his bare feet. Rana took a step back, leaving her probe to hover behind his nape and do the measurements. It was almost disappointing to conclude the feeling was exactly the same as in his living hand. He wanted to laugh at the prejudice that had kept him from using many excellent mimetics for years, but couldn’t find it in him.
“Sir,” she said, standing still at a respectable distance behind him, “it should be safe to speak in here. Won’t you tell me what happened?”
Safe made him snort. No place was safe, no matter how heavily shielded. The Vault was a joke; otherwise, Sovereign would have rooted it out long ago. Still, he closed his eyes and shifted focus inwards, out of curiosity. Its pulse was barely perceptible, but it was there all right.
“Isn’t it obvious?” he said at last. “My memories have been tampered with. What else is there to tell?”
The fascination gleamed in her eyes again. “Tampered with? So far we’ve only seen evidence of random memory corruption in test subjects, without any hint at intention. Tampering implies fine control. This is useful information, sir.”
“There’s been plenty of random corruption too,” he murmured.
“Oh, certainly, certainly. It’s to be expected at your level of cognitive independence. Which is, again, nothing short of miraculous, given your proximity to the source and the length of exposure.”
“There’s nothing miraculous about it. Sovereign needs me.”
“Exactly my point, sir. The less freedom a subject has, the less useful it becomes.”
Saren eyed her suspiciously. “What’s your level of cognitive independence, Thanoptis?”
“Uh… eighty one percent as of the last evaluation.”
“Holding steady at seventy seven.”
“How about the krogan subjects outside the Vault?”
“Typical decay rates range from three to five percent per week.”
“So you think it’s working.”
“For krogan. Not so well for salarians. Their decay rates are between fifteen and twenty percent outside, and half that inside the Vault, though these numbers come from a severely limited sample and almost certainly suffer from selection effects. The susceptibility seems to correlate with the average intelligence of the species. Not as much as with the physiological factors, of course.” She tapped her forehead with her finger and smiled unhappily. “Squishy craniums.”
The unbidden memories of Benezia’s degradation made his world shrivel up again. He wasn’t far from that stage himself. At his “level of cognitive independence”, only two out of five of his decisions could be considered unaffected. That was disastrous, not miraculous. True, Benezia’s last evaluation had yielded barely more than twenty percent, but his last result had been almost fifty, so he was on a steep downward slope. Perhaps his results were contaminated by receiving the Cipher and by the trauma of “direct control”, and his mind was still his own. Or perhaps his mind itself was contaminated, and the results were actually a lot worse than he was ready to admit.
Rana shifted, and he realized he had no idea how long he’d been standing in silence. “Are we done here?”
“Yes, sir. Everything seems to be in order. But I’d like to remind you that I was against the procedure in the first place and that I can’t recommend—“
“Your concern is noted.”
His chambers inside the Vault had a gorgeous view. It was dawn, and birdsong flowed from outside, though no birds would be seen. Only their shadows flitted among the bushy crowns of gnarled trees, growing in reluctant pairs and threes, and only their echoes disturbed the tall grasses that lined the coast.
Other things came in, carried on the chilly morning breeze. The salty, fishy smell of the ocean, the steady beat of breakers lapping up the little beach. The silver sands of Virmire glimmered in the sunrise. The air itself seemed to glimmer. It would be a perfect day, with just enough scattered clouds to make for dramatic vistas, and just enough wind to make the grasses and the ocean ripple alike.
You know you can’t hide this place forever, said a voice from the past. Sooner or later, someone’s going to recognize it as the prime vacation spot it rightfully should be. Your ugly war base will be turned into a tourist attraction, or – ha, this is good – a weird, military-themed hotel. You know, with all the staff wearing uniforms and toy side-arms and saluting the guests.
No no no, bear with me. I can just imagine it – this would be the VIP suite. Extra charge for the view! I mean, just look at that. Look at it and tell me it’s not fucking beautiful.
“It is,” he whispered to the wind. “It’s fucking beautiful.”
He always felt that building the facility on these shores offended the spirits of the silver and blue. But the stone was easy to work, the white forests further inland provided sturdy wood for construction, and there was no location like it on the entire planet in terms of seismic stability. And even if it could have been done elsewhere, it was too late for regrets now. It was too late to change his mind.
The voice laughed at his brooding. Come on, it’s not such a bad image, is it? We could retire here one day. You’ll be the grumpy, impossibly rich, eccentric veteran carrying his famous collection of prototype weapons with him wherever he goes. You know, just in case. And I… I’ll be your pet.
He closed his eyes and shook his head, but couldn’t shake the smile off his face, nor the crushing sadness that suddenly squeezed his chest so he could hardly breathe.
“No,” he muttered. “Stop it. Stop it, stop it, stop it.”
Wake the fuck up! It was too late for Benezia, but it’s not too late for you.
Two out of five. Forty percent, Nihlus, that’s how late it is.
Just get out of there and we’ll find a way to deal with it, like we dealt with much worse. Together.
There is no worse. This is the end of everything. There’s no going back, for any of us. Why can’t you see? If I don’t see this through, everyone will perish. Everything we know, everything we learned. It will all be for nothing.
I’m not asking you. Either surrender — or I’ll make you.
Saren swallowed. He became aware that his heart was beating heavily, and that there was a soft glow around him, like a layer of blue mist just micrometers above his skin.
Calm down. Fear attracts attention.
I do not fear Nihlus.
So does anger.
He drew a deep breath, then another one, and another one. The glow dissipated in the crisp light of the new day. The pulse sounded more distant than ever. Perhaps Rana was right, and it was working.
Not that it mattered. After two decades of immense investment, research, testing and analysis, there was exactly one thing known for sure: there was no recovery. The process was degenerative, irreversible. Especially with the added friendly benefits of trauma to the neural tissue.
Shut up, or they’ll start listening.
I have nothing to hide.
Is that so.
The beep made him jerk. But it was only the front door bell. Droyas was there, turning a great golden eye at the security camera. Saren put some clothes on and allowed him in.
“Battlemaster,” said the old krogan, taking position in the elevated anteroom, with several shallow steps leading down to the office where Saren had taken a seat at his desk.
“Droyas,” Saren replied, in the same slow, respectful tone. “What news?”
“The human vessel is in the system. Their cloaking technology couldn’t mask the ME flash when they negotiated the relay. But we only have their entry vector. They could be anywhere.”
“They will attempt to land here.”
Droays nodded, and Saren could almost see the wheels turning. “Two hours, assuming no delays.”
Saren nodded back. “What’s Sovereign’s status?”
“Hiding above the north pole. Undetectable, unless they know exactly where to look.”
Clever. Now he needed to be clever too. “They won’t risk landing the ship. They’ll drop an infiltration team first, to disable a portion of planetary defenses.” He paused for effect. “Instruct the geth to let them.”
The golden eyes narrowed on him. “For what purpose?”
“I’m asking the questions.”
“Battlemaster.” More than anything, it was a growl. Saren paid it no heed.
“Make sure they understand I need the turian and the asari alive. They’re not to be harmed. The others are dispensable.”
“If you say so.”
“And when they do land the ship, it’s not to be touched.”
Saren waited to see if the krogan would ask his questions anyway. He didn’t. Good. “What’s the status of your units?”
Droyas shrugged. He mulled it, then spat it out. “You saw what they’re like.”
“Brash, brutal and insolent? Sounds like model krogan youth.”
But Droyas was shaking his head. “They’re not ready. We’re only just beginning.”
“We’re out of time. Make them ready.” Now he mulled it. “And prepare an escape route.”
A long, tense silence vibrated between them like an invisible wire, plucked high in the middle. The krogan’s gaze was heavy, trusting, obliging. At last, Saren succumbed.
“If it all goes to hell – Droyas, old friend – you must flee to Tuchanka. With everything you need to resume your work. Take a ship, and whatever equipment, data and men you want. Do you understand?”
Droyas was frowning, and when he spoke, the delicate crystal sculpture on Saren’s desk, representing the Fiery Petals Nebula, resonated. “I understand. But I don’t like it.”
“I don’t need you to like it. I need you to do as I say. Don’t think about it as running. Think about what we have accomplished here, and what it could mean for your people.”
Still frowning, and after what seemed innumerable seconds, Droyas slowly nodded. “I will do as you say.”
“Start at once.”
But instead of taking the hint and leaving, Droyas remained there, standing still, a huge, looming figure, demanding his answers.
Saren sighed. “Speak if you must. But be quick.”
“Why let them through if there’s a possibility of a massive attack?”
“There isn’t. It’s just one ship.”
“Plus the salarian forces.”
“Thus the backup plan.”
“Stinks of delaying for time.”
“Exactly. But that’s none of your business.”
“The turian who’s not to be harmed – is it Nihlus?”
“So he sided against you.”
Saren already had a ‘that’s none of your business either’ for the expected ‘so why spare him?’ but Droyas wisely chose to back off at that point. He nodded, and turned to leave.
One hour passed. Saren spent it in preparation. He put on his suit of armor and let it interface with his implants and his prosthetic arm. He cleaned his pistol, then ran all the available system diagnostics. He sharpened the cutting edges on his combat gloves and checked the grooves and magnets on his boots. But no amount of preparation would mitigate the foolishness of going out into the field with new, untested amplifiers. Every time he thought of it, the strange sensations along his spine, the little currents, the trickling, the tickling, would come into focus and distract him. How easy it would be to go too far, reach too deep in rage or fear, and lose control. He could see it so clearly it must have been an image from some forgotten nightmare: a runaway reaction, igniting a biotic spark in every cell, every molecule of his body, until his flesh was vaporized in one final bright burst. He had an idea what it would feel like. Sovereign had given him a taste.
When there was nothing more to do, he left his chambers through the back door and ascended the metal staircase. The Vault ended somewhere between the first and the second landing. There was no wall to mark its borders, no door to signify coming in or going out. No sign, no warning. It was invisible to the unaided eye. Saren thought he could see its minuscule flickers now and then, but always at the edges of his field of view and never in the direction he was looking at. He also thought he could hear it, but Rana assured him its acoustic frequencies were far above the hearing range of any sapient being, even one sporting his impressive menagerie of cybernetic upgrades.
Still, that was how he knew he was no longer inside it. Dry, rational dread washed over him, a disgust learned rather than instinctive, like the feeling one gets when stepping near some seemingly lifeless yet viciously radioactive thing. He knew the Vault was no more than a thin, fragile barrier, but even such meager protection was better than none. Despite the hard weight of his combat suit, he was naked. Despite his weapons and powers and armies, he was helpless. Helpless against Sovereign, and the growing darkness within.
But there was no turning back. The stairs led to a wide platform, and on it was the beacon. How oddly plain it looked now, now that he knew what it was, now that he knew the word for it in the tongue of its makers. It wasn’t a word his mouth could form, but his mind could think it, wrap around its intended simplicity. Seeing it for what it truly was made him think of a starless night out alone, squinting at the moving, breathing shapes in the dark and guessing what dangerous creatures they belonged to until it was revealed, in the light of dawn, that they had only been bushes heaving in the wind.
The beacon was inert. Saren turned instead to the holographic interface, on standby atop a final flight of steps. He approached it. Usually that was enough. This time, nothing happened.
He exhaled and closed his eyes. The pulse was still very faint, very far.
I need to speak to you, he thought with great purpose, but he immediately knew it wouldn’t be enough.
He opened his eyes and stared at the useless symbols. There was something deeply repulsive about speaking aloud, alone as he obviously was. Like it would mark the final step into madness. Ridiculous. He tried to laugh at it, but didn’t quite succeed. His heart was thumping too hard for laughter.
He swallowed and closed his eyes again, reaching.
The word sounded meaningless and hollow compared to the profound emotion he experienced saying it. He had never said it aloud before. Only in his dreams.
Nothing happened, but encouraged by his ability to overcome the petty embarrassment, Saren kept speaking.
“I need you to hear me.”
His breathing was deep and labored, and words slow to come.
“I’m losing my faith—“
The knot in his throat was thick and hard to swallow.
“I need to know – it’s no longer obvious – that you’ll keep your end of the bargain. That you won’t break the oath you made to my people the way you broke your oath to me. I agreed to serve – but I won’t be a mindless tool.”
It burned like acid, like salt in a wound, shame mixed with anger, helpless, ineffective anger. He’d had something different in mind on the way to the altar, and he was no longer sure he wanted to be heard, to be seen in this pathetic state. Still, he kept speaking.
“I need to know—“ He drew a deep, shuddering breath. “I need to know – what am I to you?”
He jumped at the sound that made no sound, blinked wildly as if woken from a dream. Everything was as silent and as unmoving as when he had entered, but now, the empty space seemed pregnant with a presence.
“Proof of what?” he said cautiously, somewhat self-conscious again, now that it turned out his confession had been heard after all.
But he needed to be quiet in order to hear. He exhaled again, closing his eyes, trying not to think.
Saren gnashed his teeth. This was no time for riddles and mysteries. Why couldn’t the damn Reaper just spell it out for him?
In the midst of his agonizing urgency to have his answer, a memory from a context that couldn’t possibly be more unrelated suddenly surfaced and suspended everything else. It wasn’t any particular situation, but a whole category of situations that used to arise often, in the early days of his affair with Nihlus. Nihlus, who lightheartedly and shamelessly wasted breath on words both spoken and typed, hated Saren’s calculated efficiency with a righteous passion. Their arguments had been filled with phrases like “this is not a good time to be elliptical – can’t you just spell it out for me”, with an added “for fuck’s sake”, or some other vulgarity, for emphasis.
Saren shook his head and laughed a shaky, nervous laugh.
“What possibility?” he said with a newfound patience.
But it took a while before he was calm enough to hear the reply.
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