Signal to Noise

The priest intoned the First, and one by one, they were to join. It was just like during the rehearsals, only now it had to be perfect. Zero margin for error. The eleven voices, all wearing the ceremonial whites, stood around the priest in a wide circle under the gaping spire of Tricabili, a seventy-stories-high wind pipe that amplified their voices many times over until the entire city, and presumably, the Spirits above, could hear the Chant of Unification.

Nihlus was the Sixth Voice: the voice of air, of purity, of freedom, the voice of turian spirituality. Of course the priest hadn’t assigned him the role for some mystical criteria, like actually fitting the description, but only based on the colors of his voice: the easy baritone of his normal speech, codified as cloud white, the crisp tenor overtones of excitement, codified as pure white, and the husky contrabass undertones of emotion, codified as bone white. All white, and air it was.

Councilor Sparatus intoned the Second. He had a powerful voice of pure browns and he fit his role, that of earth, perfectly. Not only as a person firmly grounded with both his feet, but also as a living personification of turian practicality. Nihlus observed his face, painted in the same whites he himself wore, with differences noticeable only to connoisseurs, as it assumed an expression of complete concentration, flavored with a hint of the effort he had to invest into pulling off the precise frequencies in all three registers at once. They had nothing in common, Sparatus and Nihlus, nothing except the design. Some believed that was enough to label them clan and even family. Some even thought the shared markings were what brought Nihlus up through the tiers in such a short while. But Nihlus knew better. He knew who brought him up, and that one most certainly didn’t share his colors.

The young Colonel, Cassius or some such, intoned the Third. He too wore the Borena colors; all the Voices did, including the priest. At least half of the soloists were selected just because of the markings and the voice codes, while the others matched the criteria by accident but would have been present even if it were not for the singing. Nihlus decidedly belonged to the first group, though he had accumulated quite a few high-tier acquaintances over the recent years. It was strange, standing among so many faces superficially similar to his own; he wondered if he was supposed to feel close to them. People on Palaven – people from Palaven – put a lot of stock into these things. Markings and colors. Numbers and symbols. Rituals and ceremonies. To witness the mating ceremony of none other than the Primarch of the Core Cluster was stranger still. Nihlus had never seen a full-fledged mating ceremony before; the next closest thing was the modest service he and his squad-mates organized for their CO onboard the Valiant. Nihlus sang there too, but only after getting properly intoxicated.

Ambassador Orinia intoned the Fourth. Of the eleven, she was the only woman, but she held her tones better than all so far, except the priest. Nihlus felt stage fright creeping up from his stomach, where it had been lying in wait since the gathering had begun. The harmony was starting to shape up and everyone in the crowd could feel it, the flow of the sound, shaped by the mystery and mastery of the architects of Tricabili. There was still plenty of time before his turn, and Nihlus allowed his eyes to graze over the mass, a fine selection among the finest of Palaven. The eleven voices stood atop a platform, elevated by a flight of shallow stairs; the others stood below, a calm sea of a thousand uncovered crests, all nicely directed towards the spire, as if aligned with the field lines of a central force. If only Saren could hear me thinking like this, Nihlus mused, and smiled. If only he were here.

Parin, the Primarch of the Caestus Cluster, intoned the Fifth in deep shades of ocean blue. Nihlus would be next and he straightened up, chest forward, head held high, hands clasped firmly behind his back. He was resigned to stare over the heads of the audience and avoid eye contact at any price, but a slight commotion in the crowd drew his gaze. Among all the people wearing various tones of pastel whites, there was a person in monochrome black and silver and even his face was devoid of color. A face that stood out in any crowd, even one as distinguished as this assembly in Tricabilli. A face Nihlus knew well, oh so well, a face he feared and yearned for, a face he had not seen for almost a year now. A face he had marked. Laying eyes on Saren, as he treaded forward relying on soft touches and whispered promises (relax just relax I won’t hurt you take my hand guide me yes Nihlus oh yes), made his blood rise in wave after wave of exhilaration and longing. Nihlus watched him approach, fascinated as always at how such a large man could navigate the crowd with such ease, gliding through them like a shadow and before long he was standing in the first line under the stairs.

Their eyes met and Nihlus knew beyond any doubt that Saren had come here for no other reason than to hear him sing. There was no time to process the meaning of this, the feeling of this, he didn’t need to look at the priest to know his turn had come, he inhaled and captured the air inside to let it out in a carefully controlled flow as he finally intoned the Sixth. His voice sounded different than on the rehearsals, but in a good way, the sudden surge of emotions had enriched it and he let them float out into the harmony. He had intended to keep his eyes above the heads but he could not tear them away from Saren, he sang to him, he sang for him, it was all for him, for how he had missed him and how he now craved his presence, for all the feelings of joy and pain that had remained unspoken between them after their last disastrous meeting and the still more apocalyptic misunderstanding that came later. He felt his voice slipping into a spontaneous vibrato, there was nothing he could do about it, but why would he want to? He was only dimly aware of the remaining five voices as they joined the chant; there was no telling if Saren could keep in tune with his and hear the secret notes weaved into the trembling firmament. His eyes were fixed and shining like diamonds, he was still and unrelenting, a mysterious cloud-shrouded island in a churning sea of white light.

And then the Attunement was over and the ceremony could begin. They were to sing excerpts from Alienation, Allegiance and Assembly, and Allegience was Saren’s favorite. Nihlus had some time to recapitulate as the choir that was situated on the galleries lining the entire Hall of Resonance took over for a while. The crowd was swaying, ever so slightly, for the music was irresistible, wrinkling and sparkling, reflecting and refracting, a bright pool holding the perfect waveform and no turian could ever ignore its solemn beauty. Nihlus searched Saren’s features for the elation that was flowing through him, and although the silver face betrayed no such emotion, his eyes, the eyes spoke volumes in a secret language of motionless silence, a language only Nihlus could understand, and oh, how proud and special that made him feel! His breath came in ragged like a groan of desire. Saren blinked, a deliberate, slow motion, and Nihlus blinked back. I hear you.

Two large rifts opened in the mass, which divided again and again until there were eleven groups standing for the eleven Core Colonies, the eleven stars in the crest of the Hierarchy, separated by narrow paths of Alienation. There was a time when Nihlus had no idea what the numbers and the words of the Chant meant and but for the gentle notes of Saren’s voice during their stay on Palaven, Nihlus wouldn’t know or care for their meaning to this day. He wondered if Saren knew how grateful he was. For all the lessons, unnerving and boring as they may have seemed in the beginning. He wondered if Saren knew that he remembered each one, all together with the subtle inflections of that mesmerizing voice. There was a time when Nihlus had no idea what the inflections meant, what the notes meant, and but for the persistence of his curiosity and the desperate courage behind his experiments, he would have been deaf to them to this day. He wondered if Saren knew how hard Nihlus had worked to enter his confidence. How completely shattered he had been when he thought he’d lost it. How difficult it would be to put the pieces back and form a whole. Unless they were to do it together (let me show you give me your hand Nihlus right there together yes together), unless they were both to atone.

Now his eyes were pried away by necessity as the couple appeared on the horizon of the gathering, the bride from the far left, the groom from the far right, and they walked the paths of Alienation and it was his turn to sing again, the dissonant tones of divergence opposed in every way imaginable to the pristine harmony of Attunement. A difficult passage was coming and the priest demanded his attention; he could hear the eight voice, the crimson of desire, lose the frequency in the middle register, and a frown passed over the priest’s face, but then it was replaced by a surprised smile as Nihlus made the tricky transition with unparalleled accuracy, landing exactly on the right note. A miniscule flick of the priest’s mandible and he put more force into it, so that the others could tune to him. Such a small thing, really, but it absorbed him, and for a moment, a very brief moment, he almost forgot about the heat of Saren’s proximity.

But then the complicated part was over and again the choir shaped the sound from all sides. He was free to turn to and be irradiated by the impossible brightness of those eyes again, watching him, wanting him. Saren’s head dropped, chin down, shoulders wide apart, hands behind his back, the white-hot gaze protruding beneath his brow in two highly concentrated, narrow beams. He spoke to Nihlus with increasing urgency, but Nihlus was powerless to speak back, the couple had converged and they were now reaching for each other and it was time to take a deep breath before the glorious soundscape of Allegiance.

So he spoke back by directing the verses at Saren openly, like he had done once in the same place, but then, they had been alone. He refused to break eye contact even though he knew the priest would turn to give instruction; he knew this piece so well he didn’t need instruction. It went through him and from him and he invested everything, everything, into the words of promise, of faith, of unbroken trust. Trust? Yes. Always. That was the one true constant of their friendship even after all they had done to hurt each other. How was that possible? Nihlus didn’t have the answer, but he was as sure of the truth of it as he was of the erratic beating of his heart. Some of it must have translated into the music, for he thought he saw the silver features tremble ever so slightly and his voice trembled with them (you’re trembling why are you trembling don’t turn from me please Nihlus don’t turn your back on me), but he held the tones perfectly even as he felt the awareness of the priest and the other soloists and perhaps the entire crowd bear down on him. Later they would say it was an inspired performance and ask after the handsome Sixth Voice and the nicely clad ladies would flutter their fans and the nicely clad gentlemen would shrug though more than a few would wish they had a fan to flutter with as well but there was only one who would have him, if he would have him, today and forever. Forever? That’s what the verses said: faithful forever. Is that so different from trust always?

The couple finally joined hands on the periphery of his vision and the last hopeful notes died out in his throat, leading into the slow march of the Assembly, which rested mostly on the choir. Saren closed his eyes and released Nihlus just in time, as the Primarch and his mate stepped up the stairs. Nihlus measured them both with the kind of interest that Saren would pretend to despise until they were alone on the Virial and (look at me Nihlus I want to see your eyes I want you to look at me when you come) indeed both halves of the future union were exemplary in terms of desirability. Nihlus didn’t give a flying fuck about exemplary desirability. In fact, he found he wanted to get out of there, now that the important part was over, and talk to Saren, touch Saren, take Saren, didn’t matter where, only it had to be soon or he’d go out in flames.

But when he turned to him he only found an empty space in the first line. Nihlus scanned the crowd in panic but the silver shadow was nowhere to be seen. He had to fight the urge to run down the stairs and outside, catch him before he disappeared again, Nihlus seriously considered doing just that and pissing off the entire fucking Hierarchy, he’d do anything, anything, to talk to him today. As his distracted eyes touched the priest and saw a threatening frown directed at him in no uncertain terms, he realized he couldn’t do it. And as he reached that decision, a rarely mature decision, and his mind relaxed a notch, suddenly he knew exactly where Saren had gone.

The rest of the ceremony dragged on in slow motion and he kept searching the crowd for Saren’s face even though he knew well that he would not return. Minutes took hours and the hour the priest needed to complete the ceremony turned into an agonizing eternity. But finally the couple was wed, and they were allowed to press into each other and to press their foreheads together at the cheering of the entire gathering. Nihlus absently noticed he was actually rather envious. The newlyweds received symbolic markings inside the curve of the neck: she in his Borena whites, he in her Taetrus crimsons. Nihlus had already marked Saren, in a way as unique as everything about Saren was, and now he fantasized about how Saren could mark him. Time accelerated with his heartbeat.

And then, it was over.

The moment the couple had left the platform and the priest nodded to the soloists that they were free to go and mingle, Nihlus darted for the distant door. He wasn’t as subtle as Saren, and elbowed his way through the people with fake smiles and insincere apologies. It was hard work, and by the time he stepped out of the deep shade of the ancient spire and into the unforgiving shine, he was already sweating in his heavy ceremonial robes. The light blinded him and he had to pause and adjust. Everything was unbearably white all of the sudden, the white stones of the colonnade, and the white marbles of the reconstructed Subourus Plaza, riddled with tourists from all corners of the Galaxy. But the most blinding was the twinkling white of the obelisk across the square.

“Look, mom, is that a tirian bride?”

“Turian. But yes, I suppose it is. She’s wearing white…”

“Watch it, asshole.”

“I don’t believe it! He stepped on my toe! Jerk!”

“Hey! You’re in my shot!”

At least there weren’t as many visitors in the memorial park, and they were a bit more polite. The hedges were tall enough to obscure the view and he had to stop to consult a holo with the map. Apparently, the park was designed to mimic the structure of the Temple, and the obelisk was raised in the very center. Nihlus had always been curious about this place, but hadn’t dared to ask Saren to take him for a visit. He could have gone alone, but somehow he’d thought it a kind of cheating. A momentary uncertainty seized him and he froze. What if he was wrong? What if Saren wasn’t there?

Only one way to find out. He shook his fears away and started walking the wide paths arched with lush greenery and white flowers. Too cultivated for his taste, but he was grateful for the shade. It seemed inappropriate to run, and he kept a respectable pace. Here and there, he noticed people meditating or praying, and some were rocking back and forward on their knees in the unmistakable motions of mourning. What should he do, if he finds Saren like that? The prospect fought to freeze and melt his heart at the same time. It was both terrifying and deeply endearing.

But of course Saren was standing perfectly still, a patch of deeper darkness in the cool shadow of the magnificent monument, as if he had always been there, as if he had always stood there, a part of the architecture, a part of the grand plan the architects of the Temple had for the turian race. The lush black of his robe made Nihlus wonder if Saren’s voice would codify as black, the voice of night and star-flight, the voice of the void, of silence, the voice of the unknown, the voice of turian ambition. It would have been uncanny, but far from impossible. The lack of markings disqualified Saren from ever soloing in the Chant, but no turian could deny the instinct to express himself through music. How perfect it would be, to sing Allegiance in duet with Saren! The people he had sang the favorite litany with today may have shared his colors, and there may have been other people somewhere among the stars who shared his name, but this man, his opposite in every way imaginable, was the only family he knew.

Nihlus was facing his back and it didn’t appear like Saren had heard him approaching. He inhaled and exhaled deeply a couple of times, taking in the smells of the gardens, the distant noises of the busy capital, the impatient rhythms of his body. Then he stepped forward in deliberate, respectful steps.


Saren turned his head halfway so that Nihlus could see his profile, and for the first time, the scars. “Nihlus.”

Suddenly his throat was all shriveled up and dry. “It’s been a long time.”

“Has it?”

“Nine months and eleven days.” Off by one. It was a challenge.

Saren turned back to the monument. He did not accept.

Nihlus swallowed and stepped closer. “May I?”

“If you must.”

“I do,” he breathed, and reached for Saren’s face with a shaking hand. The touch of him was electrifying and it appeared that Saren sensed something of the kind as well because he closed his eyes as Nihlus explored the texture of the scars. They had healed beautifully, though Nihlus hadn’t expected them to be so… striking. “Look at me,” he whispered. And Saren obeyed, turning to face him. Nihlus took him by the chin and turned his head, gently, a bit to the left and right. The sea of emotion inside him was churning dangerously. He bit into his tongue to still it. “Spirits, you’re beautiful,” he said at last, and smiled. Millions of things to say and do swam in the sea, but nothing other than the naked sincerity of his love made it to the surface.

Saren took his hand, and pressed it against his mouth, briefly, then let go. Nihlus saw his throat working. “I won’t apologize.”

Nihlus followed the hand down, hypnotized by the jewelry on Saren’s fingers. Everything on him was so perfect, the silver decorations lining the robe, the noble pallor of his crest and horns, the mirror eyes, reflecting, always reflecting, taking the world apart and reassembling, repurposing. Nihlus saw it clearly: in Saren’s eyes, the fault rested on him alone. Guilty, of seeing colors where there were none; guilty, of being deaf to tones echoing across the Galaxy. Nihlus had no mirror to show to Saren. Even if he were willing to apologize, what would he apologize for? Hurting himself in order to hurt Nihlus?

So he sighed and nodded. “Well I will.” He looked at the monument, searching the part where Saren’s gaze had been directed when he found him, and sure enough, the name was there. He touched it. “I am sorry. I am so sorry.”

After a pause, he turned to Saren again, and wasn’t surprised to find that he hadn’t moved a muscle. “Can you forgive me?”

“I thought about that.” Saren’s left mandible flicked to betray that he too was nervous. At least a little bit. “I learned later what had… occupied you.”

“It’s no excuse.”


They stood in silence for a while, and the shadow of the obelisk moved in imperceptible increments so that now Saren’s left shoulder was in the sun.

“The answer is yes,” he said at last, and Nihlus’s heart skipped a beat. He had to close his eyes to keep the sea from spilling.

“Let me hold you now and I swear I won’t ask for anything…”

He didn’t dare open his eyes and instead relished the light touch on his right arm. The touch turned into a caress, the caress into a grip. Not only allowing. Demanding. “Look at me,” Saren said, closing the circle. Nihlus cradled the back of Saren’s head with his right hand, and placed the left on his shoulder. He opened his eyes but didn’t quite dare meet Saren’s.

He sent the whisper floating on a breath of summer breeze. “Can you trust me again?”

“I never stopped.”

Nihlus swallowed. Nodded. Smiled, albeit faintly, and only then dared to return the gaze. “I missed you.”

Saren’s grip on his arm tightened, and now he placed his other hand on Nihlus’s waist, drawing him closer. Nihlus could feel his chest heaving with voiceless feelings. Voiceless? No. He could hear every word as clearly as if Saren were crying out with full lungs, with full heart.

And for his part, Nihlus realized that Saren had marked him a long time ago. His scars were hidden deep within, but he would wear them with pride and honor. For as long as he should live.


Inspired by the lovely painting with the same title, Signal to Noise, by Anjian.

Related reading:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.