CHAPTER 40 OF GHOST IN THE MACHINE
They emerged into the basin from the south-east. Cover was plentiful on the sides but in the middle there was nothing. And that’s where the bomb was set. Two dozen geth, some with flamethrowers, had already landed in the west and rounds were flying in all directions. Garrus and the humans knelt next to the bomb behind mobile barriers, laying down cover fire while the salarians retreated toward the pillars lining the north wall.
Nihlus dropped into ankle-deep, opaque water, sought cover, and started to shoot. His body was going through the motions, but he felt detached, as if watching old footage of some previous mission where he’d been caught on camera. The same feeling, or non-feeling, had kept him from reacting to anything they had witnessed inside the base. The salarian captives, the krogan breeding grounds, Rana Thanoptis and her evasive explanations. Even the familiar fragrance, trailing through the secluded domain behind the laboratories to Saren’s private quarters, where they had gained access to the defense systems and the neuroscience research data, had failed to wake him up. And the beacon had numbed him down even further.
INSERT CONVO WITH GARRUS FROM THE BEACH
None of it felt real. Not even the rounds clipping his shoulder and making his shield flicker. He ducked. Someone had the good sense to throw a grenade and geth parts rained over the arena and into the pool.
“Vakarian!” Shepard yelled through the comms. “Status?”
“The bomb is armed, Commander. But—watch out!”
Nihlus knew it was Saren the moment the deadly biotic bolt set the water around him on fire, missing. He glanced up to see Saren riding on some kind of suspension platform, spilling death on them from above like a god of old. Garrus and the humans scattered around like a school of frightened fish. Whatever had been asleep inside Nihlus awoke with an exhilarating jolt of pain, fear and longing, and rejoiced at the savage display of power.
“Nihlus!” Shepard yelled. “Back up! We’ll cover you!”
The geth ceased fire. Nihlus peeked around the corner and saw them taking cover, mirroring their own positions. Saren’s platform rounded to a halt and he slid from it, landing on his feet with a mighty splash from at least ten meters above. An insane excitement, equal parts panic and euphoria, possessed Nihlus and he was about to erupt into a wild laughter, when Shepard shot Saren. Two times in the chest and once below the chin, with the same cold, unmovable determination that had ended Benezia’s life.
Nihlus screamed and bolted up in her line of fire. She cursed, and other voices rose on the comms, but he ignored the noise, mesmerized. The rounds had bounced off Saren with but the faintest ripple in his biotic barrier. He didn’t even wince. But when he shot a shockwave in Shepard’s direction, it was intended to kill. And Nihlus was in the way. He scrambled back into cover, stumbling under the gale force of the blow. The last he saw of Shepard, before she disappeared behind a pillar of her own, was her hair, crimson in the bright white noon, flowing with the wave like tall grass on the wind.
Everything stilled for a moment. Nihlus took a deep breath, and another, than laughed like a lunatic.
“I applaud you, Saren,” he called out, floating on the crazed glee. “The salarians were utterly convinced you would defend the base. An impressive diversion.”
He hazarded a glance around the corner. Saren had taken to pacing along a platform that stood just above the water, in the open, obviously unafraid of anything they could throw at him. The biotic barrier was an undulating halo around his figure, silhouetted dark against the luminous sky. He was surely too far for Nihlus to hear him snort, but Nihlus thought he did anyway.
His voice rose easily over the humming of the nearby machinery and the rushing of the water, as clear and undisturbed by emotion as if there was nothing at all out of the ordinary. “You give yourself too much credit, as usual. This place has served its purpose. We would have abandoned it regardless of your… interference.” He paused but his leisurely steps echoed for another second off the tall, moist walls. “But I won’t let you or anyone else disrupt what we’ve accomplished. If you came here thinking our friendship would move me, you have made a grave mistake.”
“Saren,” Nihlus said. “Why are you doing this?”
It was the million-credit question, the one thing that refused to be beaten into conforming to any theory, any explanation, and Spirits knew Nihlus had tried them all during the many sleepless nights in FTL.
“You’ve seen the vision from the beacons. You of all people should understand what the Reapers are capable of. They cannot be stopped.”
Nihlus peeked out again and for a brief moment, their eyes met. It was like swallowing a lump of molten lava that burned its way from his chest to his gut. But he noted that Saren didn’t look as calm as he sounded. His mandibles twitched. The sharpened talons of his right-hand fingers clicked against the thumb faster than the eye could follow.
“I know you’ll mire yourself in pointless revolt,” he continued. “I know you’d sacrifice anything for the sake of petty freedoms. Like the Protheans. They tried to fight, and they were exterminated.”
His steps, and the echoes chasing them, stopped.
“But what if they had bowed before the invaders? Would the Protheans still exist? Is submission not preferable to extinction?”
Nihlus had to laugh at that. In part, because the whole situation, and talking to Saren like this was bizarre beyond his capacity to cope. In part, because he knew it for a dependable way to anger Saren and get an upper hand in the conversation. “You really believe the Reapers will let us live?”
Glancing around the corner, he saw Saren’s browplates settle low. “This is why I never came forward with this. To you or the Council. You’re driven by emotion instead of logic. You will fight even if you know you cannot win. But if we work with the Reapers, if we make ourselves useful, we will be spared. Once I understood this, I joined Sovereign.”
“You didn’t join shit. That thing’s controlling you. I passed through your labs and spoke to your staff. I know all about indoctrination.”
Nihlus could almost hear the creaking of Saren’s mandibles, drawn tight around his chin. But none of the annoyance spilled into his voice.
“You know nothing.” He resumed his pacing. “I’ve been studying the effects of indoctrination for more than a decade. The more control Sovereign exerts, the less capable the subject becomes. That is my saving grace. My mind is still my own.”
More than a decade. Wasn’t that that’s what Kirrahe had said too? For a second, Nihlus felt dizzy. Saren had known about Sovereign longer than he had known about Nihlus. A sickening thought, but with a side of hope. If he had been under Sovereign’s influence that long, there had to be truth to what he was saying. His mind—or at least parts of it—were still his own.
“For now,” Nihlus said. His voice had lost its strength, but the strange acoustics of the place carried it anyway. “But how long before you turn from an ally into a servant? Like Benezia?”
He waited for a reply, but when nothing came, he took another glance behind the cover. Saren was standing still again, gazing at the murky water.
“Sovereign is manipulating you and you don’t even know it,” Nihlus insisted. “You’re already under its power.”
“No,” Saren said, but his voice no longer rang with confidence. “They need me. If I find the Conduit, I’ve been promised a reprieve from the inevitable. This is… the only hope.”
“Saren, we can stop them. You and I, together. We don’t have to submit to the Reapers. We can beat them!”
“I don’t believe that, Nihlus.” The sudden descent to hopelessness, clear in his undertones, wrenched at Nihlus’ heart. “History cannot be denied. The Reapers are too powerful. The only hope of survival is to join them. They’re machines. They think like machines. If I can prove my value, I become a resource worth maintaining. There is no other way!”
“Really? You, a model Spectre, the most decorated turian in the service of the Council—you’d break your vows to save yourself?”
A low growl preceded the answer, and Nihlus smiled and frowned at the same time. He knew how to pull the strings.
“I’m not doing this for myself,” Saren said. “Don’t you see? Sovereign will succeed. It is inevitable. My way is the only way any of us will survive. I’m forging an alliance between us and the Reapers. Between organics and machines. And in doing so, I will save more lives than have ever existed!”
The words echoed in their vain glory for several seconds before Saren seemingly remembered who he had been talking to and why. “But you would undo my work,” the voice said, turning from pensive to malicious. “You would doom our entire civilization to complete annihilation. And for that, you must die.”
“Kill me, then.”
Going out of cover and letting his weapon drop in the water wasn’t really something Nihlus had planned on, but there was an ironic inevitability to it.
“Nihlus!” Garrus barked.
“The fuck are you doing?! Get down!” Shepard joined.
Nihlus ignored them. He walked to the center of the basin, facing the unrelenting, unforgiving stare of the man he loved. He wasn’t afraid. He had made his choice a long time ago. Either he’d succeed in bringing Saren back to reason, or he’d die trying.
“What is it?” he challenged, spreading his arms. “Reluctant to shoot an unarmed man? Never stopped you before.”
Saren unholstered his pistol and took aim. His index finger went on clicking its frenetic beat against the trigger well. Nihlus couldn’t help looking. Following the shift of focus, Saren put the finger on the trigger and squeezed the grip. Their eyes met again.
“I don’t think you’ll shoot me,” Nihlus said. “You couldn’t do it on Eden Prime, and you can’t do it now.”
He reached the elevation and climbed up, while the barrel of Saren’s pistol tracked the weak spot on his forehead with surgical precision. The blue light of the mechanical eyes shone on without feeling, but Nihlus had long ago outgrown the need to have an actual window into Saren’s soul. He felt it like it was his own. So he made another step and pushed the barrel with his head. When he spoke again, it was just for the two of them to hear and he allowed all the terrible longing to spill out into his undertones.
“I don’t know how much of your mind is still yours. But I know your heart is still mine.”
Saren snorted. After a second, he lowered his weapon. Nihlus exhaled with relief, realizing only now that every muscle in his body was shaking with tension.
“It matters little now,” Saren said. “It’s all over already. Sovereign is extracting the position of the Mu Relay from your vessel as we speak.”
Nihlus did a double take. “What?”
There had been no trace of Sovereign when they arrived in the system. In hindsight, it was stupid to assume it would just conveniently miss the reunion.
Saren seemed to agree. “What did you think? That I would be above using the intimate knowledge of how your mind works as a tactical advantage, even though you are not?”
But Nihlus had a hand on his earpiece. “Shepard, did you get that?”
“Did you think I came here for a vacation?” Saren continued.
“Yeah, I got it!” Shepard was saying. “Joker says he can’t see it on the scanners, but some systems have been acting up—”
“I came here because I knew this was where you’d come looking for me.”
“Shit, Nihlus. He says the navigation systems have been acting up.”
“You killed Benezia before she could deliver the coordinates so I had to get them from you.”
Nihlus took a step back. “You knew we were coming?”
Idiot. Of course he had known. That was why they had found the base emptied.
“Shit! Joker says he can see it now!”
“I told you it’s too late.” For a moment, Saren’s gaze lost focus, as if he was listening to something Nihlus wasn’t privy to. “They’ve gone to find the Conduit.”
Where there used to be clarity, there was a void. Where there used to be a hum, there was silence. Where there used to be a pulse, there was only the stillness of death.
Am I alive?
He couldn’t feel his heartbeat, nor the air passing through his throat. He couldn’t move, nor make a sound. The world moved in slow motion. Nihlus was there in front of him, bulging his eyes at him, working his mouth, but Saren couldn’t hear. On the periphery of his vision, the geth were moving. Further ahead, the humans were moving too. Step by slow step. He had the strange feeling that no one could see him, except Nihlus. That, perhaps, Nihlus kept him there, kept him in existence, by the sheer power of his unrelenting devotion.
Am I real?
“Snap out of it!”
Nihlus was in his face, yelling. Perhaps he had even hit him. Two echoes of sensation lingered on him like burns. One on his right temple, the other on his right arm. He looked down. His pistol was missing.
“What the fuck is wrong with you? The Saren I know is anything but a fucking loser. The Saren I know doesn’t give up!”
What happened? he said, but no words left his mouth. He was shaking. Hands on his shoulders were shaking him. He blinked at Nihlus, struggling to string events into a logical sequence.
“Come on, Saren. This hopelessness—it’s not you. Trust me, I know. I know you better than anyone. I know you better than you know yourself! That thing—it messed with you head! Made you believe there’s no hope, but it’s not true. Do you hear me? It’s—”
“—all a lie.”
“They lie, sir,” Shiala said. “Sovereign… it’s lying to us.”
“No! Listen to me. Sovereign made you believe it’s invincible, but it’s not! Yes, the Protheans were destroyed, but they had hope till the very end. That’s what I saw in the visions, Saren. Hope.”
He blinked—and he was back in the Prothean megalopolis, at sunset. Looking up he saw the Project, shining like a small moon, a brilliant beacon of hope. Solidarity reaching beyond space, beyond time, filled his inner being to the brim.
“I’m sorry, sir. It’s difficult to explain. It’s like supplanting one deeply seeded belief with something so similar it’s almost indistinguishable from the original, but different enough to affect all related thought patterns. It starts from modifying one idea and cascades through whole sections of the neural template. A change this small might never be detected by the conscious self, nor trigger the usual defense mechanisms. Sir? I’m sorry. I’m not making any sense, am I?”
“They were building something.”
Nihlus’s jaws clicked shut in the middle of an ongoing rant. He shook his head. “What?”
At least he had stopped shaking Saren. “The Protheans.”
He bent down and felt for his pistol under the water. His knees felt wobbly. The humans jumped and raised their weapons. On the other side, the geth had queued to be picked up by a dropship that would never come. It had gone with the Sovereign, together with all other geth ships in the system.
Suddenly it was all too much. The droning of the pumps, the rush of the water, Nihlus with his invasive proximity, the alien voices, demanding explanations. His vision spun into a sickening whirlpool.
Is this a dream?
Where there used the be purpose, there was a bottomless abyss, and it sucked him in.
“I said, it is enough to replace a single thought to effect indoctrination. It might be less subtle under time constraints, but that would lead to neurosis or psychosis. Inception is the gentle, slow route. That is how it manipulated you into helping it, years ago, and you’ve been able to lead a normal life despite it. If you could identify the altered thought patterns, maybe you could just turn it around. Reverse the process. But it’s only a theory. There was probably more than one altered pattern. And there’s the tissue degradation. I don’t suppose there were any cases where you could make the effects switch on and off with test subjects? I’m sorry, sir. I’m blabbing again. This insight would be priceless to an actual neuroscientist. I’m just a hobbyist. But it is fascinating, isn’t it? Sir? Sir, do you hear me? Sir? Are you alright?”
The sound was gone again. Nihlus spoke, and Shepard spoke at the same time. Judging from the gestures, they were arguing. A warm wind came from above, and then something eclipsed the sun. Saren looked up and saw the Normandy maneuvering to land.
“…dangerous and obviously insane. The Normandy isn’t equipped to hold—”
“I’ll take full responsibility.”
“Fuck responsibility!” Saren was amused to see Shepard step closer to Nihlus, as if that would help keep her words, yelled at the top of her voice to overcome the noise of the landing ship, private. “Did you see what happened when I shot him? Nothing! Even if we disarm him…”
They were leaving him behind.
You’re no longer needed.
He laughed as they blinked out of his awareness, leaving a Reaper-sized cavity behind, and promptly pushed the muzzle of his pistol into his temple. He had always wondered if he could do it. And now he knew.
“What are you doing? No!”
His pistol dripped. Useless. He holstered it. The Normandy had landed, but Nihlus and Shepard were still shouting at each other. By his calculation, the bomb they had planted would detonate in less than three minutes. Surely they knew?
His utterance brought about a welcome hush. He made a step forward and discovered he could barely hold his own weight. Every fiber of his being vibrated with the shock of withdrawal. Or the shock of survival?
The human gazed at him with unhidden malice. “What good is the word of a madman?”
“If I had any interest in killing you, you’d be dead already.”
To prove his point, he flashed his barrier. The human jumped back, and helped by the power of the pulse, landed two meters behind on all fours, like some nimble beast. Nihlus stumbled aside, keeping his footing by a small margin as he tripped over the edge of the platform. The others—there was a large, old krogan with the humans, a quarian among the salarians, and the last turian Saren wanted to see—made to surround him, aiming their weapons at him while glancing anxiously at the motionless geth behind.
He snorted and walked toward the drawbridge, letting Nihlus take the rear. It was only appropriate. They were no longer equals.