Saren awoke to the sound of silence.
Of course there was always the hum of the Virial’s systems. But these noises were so familiar he had to invest conscious effort into really hearing them. This morning, there was absolutely nothing else. No baretaloned footsteps. No humming of popular alien tunes. No dinging of plates and utensils. No groaning while weight-lifting. And later, there would be no sweaty smell in the commons, no unwashed dishes, no scratch-marks on the floors.
It was good to be alone again.
The first thing he set out to do after eating the leftover salad for breakfast, was to open the starboard junction panel in the engine room and check the insulation of the VVR tubes. They had been acting up again, and despite the three overhauls with parts from different manufacturers, something would always eat through the insulation.
It was dirty work, but not complex enough to be worth bringing in a tech. Saren opened the panel with bare hands, and indeed, the insulation had become thin, in some places even transparent. Once, more than a year back, he’d asked a tech about it. Was he supposed to change it out every month? The tech had shrugged and said, she’s an old lady, sir.
Old lady, ha! The Virial had been the fastest vessel in the Blackwatch fleet back in the day. New prototypes had surpassed her in almost every aspect during the fifteen years since she had been commissioned, but she was still a ship and a half. He put a hand on the warm pipe. Don’t worry, friend. I’m not leaving you behind.
He got up and flipped off the power switch for the junction, took the toolbox and sat back down. The remnants of the insulation yielded easily to his fingers. Then he realized he’d forgotten to bring the new roll. It was all the way down by the rover. He almost shouted out, “Nihlus!”
How silly. Nihlus was gone. He’d have to fetch the roll on his own.
After that was done, he took a shower, cleaned and sharpened his talons, and sat down to read “Mirror in the Mist” by Matriarch Benezia – a random pick from the growing list of books he wanted to read. He used to read a lot, before. He also used to go out to concerts and sometimes, theater. His habits had changed quite a bit, since.
He frowned at how before and since sounded capitalized in his head.
Now he would read the book and enjoy his solitude.
In the evening, after completing the report for the last mission in the record time of half an hour, Saren went for a run around the Presidium. The thought that Nihlus liked to exercise near the water didn’t hit him until he returned.
It was almost midday when Saren lost patience and turned on his omnitool. No messages. It was strange. He couldn’t remember the last time when he had more than two days in a row between missions, and now four had gone by. He considered calling Sparatus to check if his report had been processed. He even considered going up and speaking with him in person. Of course he didn’t, in the end. It was silly. There was still a lot of silliness to go around, or so it seemed, and the solitude he’d coveted so much did little to dissolve it.
He stared at the omnitool for a minute before scrolling to Nebulosity and the encrypted, triple-layer-security Spectre channel. Nihlus went under the nickname “Smiley” but seemed to be offline. Saren skimmed through his status messages; the last one was dated five days back and read, “Yay, another lovely swamp to explore! I’m so excited I could die. Really.”
Saren snorted. How distant it all seemed already. Like something from another life. A life of another person, who couldn’t keep his mouth shut. Who raged around like a madman, losing all self-control, only to discover that making his trainee tremble in submission turned him on. Only later did he remember the look on Nihlus’ face. It had all been a blur at the time.
He looked at his own status stream. The last entry was dated more than a year ago. Just Before. To write something now, anything at all, would be a clear message to Nihlus. So he wrote, “Had the best salad of my life. The taste still lingers.” He mused over it for a minute, then cancelled.
He turned the omnitool off (but not before appending the Nebulosity notifier to the alert stream), and went into the bathroom. Nihlus had picked the closet clean of his things, but he’d forgotten the dirty clothes in the washer. Saren hadn’t touched them. Yet. He opened the unit now and browsed through the wares with his index talon. Fished out an undershirt that had probably been white a long time ago. It even had a couple of little holes, but Nihlus loved it and wouldn’t part with it. Saren observed the thing as it dangled from his finger. He could smell Nihlus on it even without going that extra step and pressing it into his face, but he did so anyway.
His blood rose in a tide that could not be denied. Quickly, before the silliness could intervene, he dropped the undershirt back into the unit, slammed the door shut and pressed the run button. There. One source was plugged for good. He’d find the others and do the same. His body was one of them. He looked down at the inglorious sight of his light robe, bulging in front of his hips. Off with it and into the shower. Hot water. Scalding. He rested his forehead on his left arm, pressed against the cold bulkhead, closed his eyes and tried to work it out in earnest. But after a while, he gave up, sore and undone.
He took to running in the Presidium every evening, but it wasn’t enough. His body was so used to constant punishment that sitting in the ship for five consecutive days was more of a torture than a respite. Wild energies were running through him, accumulating in all the wrong places, and something had to be done about it.
There was a place he knew about but had never visited: a training arena for the practitioners of hallori, exclusively turian and exclusively upper-tier and expensive as hell, which would normally make Saren despise it. But he needed to blow off some steam, and there was nothing better for that than violence. The arena came with some decent recommendations, and advertised their trainers as masters. Saren would put them to the test.
But as soon as he walked into the training hall, he knew he’d find no outlet there. Not without causing death or permanent injury to his sparring partners. The first clue was that they all taped their talons. The second, that there was nobody there over the age of twenty-something. Only a very gifted individual could become anything close to a master inside such a short time. He’d have doubted it possible at all, Before.
“Good day, sir,” said a young man and made a court bow. Saren measured him from crest to toes. He had a name stitched to his sweat-shirt: Trian. A comely individual, light-skinned, colored with yellow Doradus markings. He had long crest-blades and long spurs and a body sculpted by years of training. Still, Saren didn’t believe for a second that he, or anybody else here could stand up to him. “The receptionist told me…”
“This is a joke.” Saren gestured towards the enclosures ahead, where people were training in pairs.
“The receptionist told me she thought you were Saren Arterius. I didn’t believe it, but I guess she was right.”
“I didn’t come here to chat.”
“How about some warming up, then?”
He gestured with his hand, and Saren followed reluctantly. They entered one of the enclosures, and the young man removed the tape from his talons. “This is up to the customers,” he said, holding up the pieces of used tape, balled together in his hand. “But we… um… we don’t tolerate the use of biotics.”
Saren glanced at the young man’s fascinated expression. How typical. How boring. “Of course.”
“Forgive me, sir. I’ve never met a turian biotic before.”
And you may not live to meet another if you don’t focus, Saren thought, but stayed silent. He hadn’t come here to teach, either.
The warm-up consisted of a series of moves designed to give insight into the strength, speed and flexibility of the partner prior to the encounter in the interest of avoiding injury. It was a custom as old as dueling itself. But accidents still happened. In his first match against Nihlus, he’d drawn blood – but not on purpose, so it was far from a testament to his skill. An embarrassment, even. Nihlus had remained reserved about sparring with him for some time, but as Saren got back into shape after many years of neglecting the arts, they learned to relax with each other. To trust each other.
There was no replacement for trust in training the hallori. No replacement for having an equal.
They had finished the warm-up now and there was nothing left to say about the prospect of a match. “I don’t think there’s anybody here who could challenge you,” said the young man in a tone of apology. His mandibles flicked. “Maybe… there’s something else I can do for you?”
The offer hung in the air for several long seconds. Saren considered it. He’d never have considered it, Before.
Finally he twitched his mandible in a gesture of polite refusal.
Saren played the piece through the Virial’s sound system, allowed it to flow for a couple of beats, then paused it. There was a suspicious buzzing sound in the air, a sound he couldn’t place. He played the music again, and again stopped it after a few beats. He couldn’t hear the buzzing through the music. He was trying to determine if it was correlated with the noise from the sound system itself.
He’d been at it for the better part of the morning. The buzzing had started the previous day, after he’d come back from his run and showered. It had kept him awake through most of the night cycle, and during brief periods of sleep, had given him disturbing dreams. It was a high-pitched sound and didn’t interact with his vocal cavity, but he could hear it well enough. Like the buzzing of insect wings. It was everywhere. It had to be coming from the ship.
After checking the detailed status outputs from all the systems, he’d gone through all the compartments and put a hand on each panel, feeling for vibration. He’d opened all the storage units and even cleaned the ventilation shafts, just in case. Being docked on the Citadel for almost two weeks as she’d been, the Virial could have picked up some furry pest or a feathered pet. But there was nothing there.
Saren killed the music, staring at the desk next to the viewport in the commons. The desk was clean and the chair empty. The buzzing became unbearable. He stood up and went to the cockpit. Perhaps he should invent a mission on his own. Take off to Ilium or Omega, pick a fight and be done with it.
He had spoken to Sparatus about that.
“Relax, Saren,” he’d said. “Enjoy the slow days. Something will come up sooner or later.”
“Can you make it sooner?”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Saren rarely asked for favors.
He looked at the message log; that conversation had happened three days ago. The other conversation had happened yesterday. Coincidence? Saren had taken all the possible precautions. He had invested a significant part of his income over the last couple of years into equipping the Virial with state of the art detectors, scramblers, shielding and isolation so that he could feel safe inside. He had analyzed Sovereign’s transmission at least a dozen times before actually listening to it. But still. It was a hell of a coincidence.
Dark fears and hopes he’d been putting off ever Since, crept back under his skin now. As he stood deliberating, the sound grew in urgency, in intensity, and he had to click his talons over the solid back of the pilot chair for comparison, for perspective. Of course, as soon as he’d done that, the buzzing retreated. Like with the music. But it was real. It had to be. He could hear it as clearly as his own accelerated breathing.
Once he made the decision, he acted quickly and dialed C-Sec. A small holo of an older turian woman blinked into existence over the navigation console. “C-Sec Central, how may I be of service?”
“I’m with the Special Tactics and Reconnaissance. I want you to send a team of techs over to my ship.”
“A moment, please,” said the holo, and Saren could count the five seconds needed for the verification of the Virial’s signature. “Acknowledged, Spectre. A team will be dispatched immediately. Anything else?”
“Make it a turian team.”
“Understood. C-Sec out.”
The holo blinked out and Saren nodded. It was a good decision.
He was out at the docks when the techs arrived; he had been listening. But there was too much clamor from the traffic outside to make out the buzzing even if it was there.
The team consisted of four turians. Good. Three males and a female, who appeared to be the leader. She stood in front of him and he towered a head above her.
“Command me,” she said simply. Saren liked that.
“Something’s buzzing inside the ship. I want you to find it. And stop it.”
“Buzzing, sir? Can you be more specific?”
She nodded. “Very well, sir. We’ll get to work right away. You can…”
“I’ll be here.”
The techs went inside, and he sat down on a plastic bench with a datapad. “Mirror in the Mist” had proven to be a challenge. He had to read almost every paragraph twice. Which was just as well.
Two hours went by before the female tech came out. She was sweaty and her green jumpsuit was stained with oil and monocarbon dust. Saren stood up to meet her.
“We can detect no anomalous acoustic waves, sir.”
She read the signs well, and did not proceed to contradict him directly. “Would you like to look over the measurements, sir?”
He growled, but took the datapad she was offering and scrolled through the power spectra. All the peaks were identified and clearly labeled and all the areas of the ship enumerated.
“Come with me,” he said and walked towards the open airlock. She hurried in front of him, almost running. As they stepped inside, the other three techs froze in the middle of packing up their equipment. Saren hit the cycle control of the airlock and it hissed closed behind them. He then took position in the center of the commons and said, “Listen.”
Everybody stood very still for half a minute but try as he might, Saren couldn’t hear the sound now. “Can you hear it?” he asked anyway. The techs waved their heads, one after another. The female was standing next to the viewport, her dirty hand resting on the desk. There was an open toolbox on the chair. The buzzing came back. “There,” Saren said, directing it squarely at her this time. “Can you hear it now?”
The female shook her head, and shot a look towards one of her colleagues or another, behind Saren’s back, her eyes sparkling with anxiety. “What?” Saren snarled. “You think I’m crazy?”
“No, sir,” she whispered, but she wasn’t quick enough, he was upon her already, pinning her against the viewport with a hand firmly clutched around her throat, but not really squeezing. She had a delicate heart-shaped face painted in vivacious greens of Solemnis, not even a little like the white-colored face of his defiant trainee, and yet, somehow, it was the same.
“Don’t look at me that way,” he said. She shut her eyes tight, her short mandibles pressing close against her chin as she worked to contain the fear. There was no reason to fear. He wouldn’t harm her. He’d never meant to harm.
He let go and she dropped on the floor like a sack of sand, a small whimper escaping her throat.
“Get out,” he said.
They were gone within seconds. He remained in the same spot, between the desk and the viewport. There were gray fingerprints on the desk. He tried to brush them off with the back of his hand, but they were greasy. A piece of wire was seated on the chair. He pushed it off and sat down. Opened the drawer. Paper clips. An eviscerated datapad. Several pieces of charcoal. Credit chit, cut in half. A crumpled piece of paper. He took it out and opened it.
The sketch showed him sleeping in the pilot chair. His clothes were stylized, and his features greatly flattered: the crest was longer, the horns sharper, the face smoother. Younger.
He crumpled the paper again and returned it to its original position. Closed the drawer, closed his eyes.
The buzzing, the buzzing was everywhere.
Saren hadn’t announced his intentions to visit and there was a kind of poetic justice in the surprise that hit him when Olte greeted him with a huge, spherical belly sticking out in front of her. For a few beats, Saren just stared. Some things, not even a fifteen-year career as a Spectre could prepare you for.
“Goddess, Saren. Like you’ve never seen a pregnant woman before.”
He frowned, still staring at the belly. “Forgive me. I didn’t expect…”
“Have you any idea how long it has been?” She was smiling, but there was a hint of sadness in it. A silent accusation.
“I don’t,” he confessed.
“More than a year.”
Saren nodded. It rang true. He certainly hadn’t seen her, Since.
“Come on,” she said, motioning him to follow. The house was small but sufficient; barely furnished. Olte enjoyed simplicity. One of several things he’d picked up from her. She led him into a room lit from the ceiling, the purplish air of a Thessian evening reflecting from the large, delicately framed mirrors on opposite walls. He frowned at the infinite reflections and the copies of his tired face returned infinite frowns.
As they sat down on large cushions, she laughed. “You came here for sex, didn’t you? I can see it in the way you move.”
“No,” he lied. Then he sighed. “Yes.”
“Sorry,” she chuckled. “But I can get you a…”
“Don’t. It’s fine.”
“Oh, but it’s not. Give me your hand.”
“I don’t think…”
“Don’t worry, Saren. The offspring is still isolated from my neural network.”
He looked at the belly again. “Who’s the father?”
There was an air of mischief in her gaze that made him desist from further questioning, although undoubtedly she wanted him to continue. “You’re different.”
“It’s the hormones.” She extended a hand, palm up. “Come on. Tell me what’s wrong.”
Saren studied the blue face, alien, yet so familiar. It was refreshing to see a face in which he could instill no fear. Unless he really wanted to. But he didn’t, today. He took her hand and saw the sparks from his biotics flaring up. He closed his eyes. Had it really been that long?
The contact only lasted for a second, her otherness washing over and through him, but not as deeply as usual. Only a touch, instead of an embrace.
“Goddess, Saren,” she repeated, opening her eyes to scrutinize him.
“I can’t help you.”
“I didn’t ask for help.”
“Oh, but maybe you should. Who is he? And why don’t you go to him? It’s not like you to dance around a problem.”
Saren looked down to study his feet. Several blades of turquoise grass from the lawn in front still clung to his boots. Somehow it seemed inappropriate to sit next to a gentle, pregnant asari in twenty kilograms of hard-suit. Of course, she could rip him apart with a thought, hard-suit or not, but that didn’t affect the impression.
“A student,” he said at last.
“Oh. Oh. I see.”
No. You have no idea. A change of topic was in order. “Why do you want a child?”
“I suspect you know all too well.”
He inclined his head, trying to make sense of the words. Had it been anyone else behind them, he’d have despised both the speaker and the hidden meaning. As it was, he tried to find it.
At last she gave him a sad smile, stroking her belly absently through the thin silk of the iridescent gown. “Wouldn’t you agree that caring for another so deeply that they become more important to you than yourself, makes you more… noble?”
Ah. She wouldn’t allow the topic to be changed. He should have known better. Olte laughed a little at his silence and patted him on the shoulder. She laughed far more than usual. Saren didn’t stay as long as he’d planned.
There were so many stars in the viewport that he didn’t need to turn on the lights inside. Was it possible at all, to count the stars? Even if given enough time, could a mortal do it? Could he tell the ones already accounted for apart from the new ones? He was too lazy to bring up the astrometry portal, but he knew the VI wouldn’t need more than a few milliseconds to deliver the number.
He pushed with his leg and made a full circle in the pilot chair.
Oh, come on. It’s a pilot chair. I couldn’t break it even if I tried.
Oooh. Someone’s cranky this morning.
I couldn’t sleep. – Only, he hadn’t said that.
He made another circle. And another. How many before he gets dizzy?
His eyes went to the plate on the navigation console. There was a donut on it, probably hard as stone. It had been three days since he’d finally been sent on an assignment. Another circle. His pistol was lying on the other side.
Don’t put that there.
It’s clean, I promise.
Fine, I’ll go upstairs.
Don’t go. – Only, he hadn’t said that.
There were pieces of alien flesh on the barrel, and the grip was a dark orange from alien blood. There was some on the hand-rests of the chair as well – all from his hands. He looked down, trying to remember how he had become painted in alien entrails. Ah. That’s right. That last biotic slash went slightly out of control.
Another circle, but now he stopped to face the opposite side. There was enough light coming from the cockpit to illuminate the path of filthy footsteps a good way into the darkness of the staircase. Some were fresh, but not all. The smell of the gore he was covered in didn’t bother him at all. Neither did the smell of his own body, which puffed into his face from inside the armor when he moved, although it would certainly raise eyeridges and wrinkle noses in polite company.
What the hell do you think you’re doing?
Throwing this away.
You can’t do that. It’s mine!
So I’ll wash it, ok? Fuck’s sake, Saren. I don’t have that many things. You didn’t stop to think I might be attached to what I have?
No it’s not. What, this? It’s just a couple of little holes. Ok, you know what? Please, don’t ever throw any of my things away unless you want to throw me away with them. Even if you think they’re garbage.
I’m sorry. – Only, he hadn’t said that.
Another circle. He could feel the onset of a headache. The new amplifiers were good, he knew that now that he’d seen them in action. He’d endure. That was what he did best. In time he’d get used to the pain, stop noticing.
A solution applicable to other things as well.
But he’d better think on it first. Better to spend an eternity in preparation, than an instant in regret.
He stood up and looked at the chair. It was covered in dirt and foul things that had fallen off him, some dry, others not yet. The ship was a mess. Upstairs was no better. In the time it took him to stalk up the stairs, his eyes had adjusted to the darkness broken only by emergency floor lights. There was a pile of dishes in the kitchen. One of the glasses still had some juice in it but it had grown a furry, gray skin. By the airlock, there was a table he’d dragged from the hangar, and on it a disassembled Armax rifle he’d started to repair a… week before? He couldn’t remember. It was unnatural, to spend so much time confined to the ship, every day the same as the one before. He noticed a tiny spring that had rolled off; it was lying between the tiles on the floor. Without it, the rifle was as good as dead.
Pick that up.
We have to make sure.
No. We’re done here. Those people have nothing to do with this.
We don’t know that.
I’ll have no part in it. I know I can’ stop you. But if you do this, you’re on your own.
I don’t need your help, Nihlus.
What then? What the fuck do you want from me?
Understanding. – Only, he hadn’t said that.
Leaving the spring on the floor, he started taking off his armor in slow motion. Perhaps if he could make his mind unsee the stars he’d already accounted for. Erase their presence from his perception. Pretend they had never been there at all and make himself believe it.
It could work.
But are you sure? Are you completely sure? Because, there’s no going back after you do it.
He was too lazy to put the armor away. He was too lazy to take a shower. Later. Plenty of time! Who was going to know if he didn’t do it today, or tomorrow, or for a fucking week? Every day was the same anyway, and the people he was sent out to kill weren’t likely to complain about how bad he smelled. As he sat down on the cot facing the conferencing projectors, he acknowledged the presence of a gaping hole in his stomach. He was hungry, but food wouldn’t fill the hole.
How about a drink?
I don’t drink.
Awww, come on. Just tonight.
What makes tonight special?
You kidding me? You’re not kidding. Spirits, Saren. It’s your nameday.
Even as a child, I had to be reminded. – Only, he hadn’t said that. The last person to celebrate his nameday was long gone and he was used to being alone.
His breathing echoed in the silence like the whispers of a lunatic. He could still hear it, if he put his mind into it. The buzzing. The sound of silence. And the hole, the hole thrived on silence.
There was no way around the inevitable conclusion: he was losing his grip. And it had to stop. He stood, the decision taking shape and gaining weight. It was the right thing to do. The hesitation was just another face of silliness. He’d been postponing it for far too long as it was. The report for the Council had been written more than a month ago as well as his recommendation, and there was nothing to add to it, just more of the same. Excellence. Quick thinking. Steel nerves under pressure. Nihlus would make a fine Spectre. The conferencing terminal came to life at his approach and quickly, before he could change his mind, he dragged the report onto Sparatus’ profile. He stood breathing, breathing in the silence, watching the transfer. It was taking ages. An excitement similar to fear made his whole body stiffen.
And then it was over. He had killed the silliness.
But as it lay bleeding in the battlefield of his mind, he wondered: why wasn’t he feeling victorious?
The headaches had become a problem. The pain pulsed in time with his heartbeat. He couldn’t concentrate.
To hell with Sparatus and what he considered a ‘favor’. Saren stared at the mission statement, wondering if the headache had made him hallucinate. The Council wanted him to go to some backwater moon and organize an evaluation for Spectre candidacy. They had asked him to do so in the past; it never went well. His standards were too high, so the candidates tended to end up dead. They wouldn’t have asked for it now, if he hadn’t expressed the wish to be as engaged as possible.
And to think, now that Nihlus was as good as appointed, they might try to set Saren up with a new apprentice again. They had tried to a couple of times before. He had never agreed to it, but now he owed Sparatus a favor. Damn.
The pain, the pain pulsed in his eyes, in his neck, in his temples.
Do you want me to bring you something for the headache?
He snarled and hit the console, causing the holo to blink and stutter.
The headaches had been coming and going in waves for three days now. Perhaps they were related to the way he’d stepped over his limits on that assignment. It had happened before but it usually didn’t take more than six to twelve hours for the symptoms to pass. Perhaps it was worse now because he hadn’t eaten in three days either. He took water and tea, but anything else made his stomach throw a tantrum.
Admit it. You’re falling apart.
Call him, then, and be done with it.
I’m already done with it. I’ve made my decision. I’ll never see him again.
He dropped his face in his hands, massaging his temples with his thumbs. Then he paused. Studied his fingers. Closed his eyes and brushed his mandible with the back of his fingers, the way Nihlus had done that once. The memory of the immaculate touch was so vivid that Saren could feel the heat of the other’s proximity as if he were right there, his breathing quick and shallow, his eyes burning with a fire Saren had seen many times before but only identified at that pivotal moment when the silliness had been revealed for what it was.
It was still alive, the silliness. The cockpit was filled to the brim with it. Like a physical presence, it moved Saren’s hand, caressing his own face. No matter how much he hated and despised it, it wasn’t going to vanish the way he’d imagined. He opened his eyes, blinked at the uncaring status screens, at the galactic map splayed across the closed viewports.
“Plot course to Ganima,” he said to the VI, grateful that he didn’t need to command a living person right now. His undertones were a mess.
Of course. He’d have to go through the Serpent Nebula relay whether he wanted to or not.
“Hell. Fucking hell.”
“Please repeat the command.”
Saren chuckled at that. You’re going crazy. Talking to VI. Like a madman. Like a lunatic.
Crazy about him.
Crazy without him.
Only he’d never have the courage to say so. He barely had the courage to admit it to himself.
He took to breathing in and out in long, controlled streams, building a calmer rhythm. But it wasn’t working. His heart was pounding, and it felt like his brain was closer to exploding with every beat, expanding, then deflating, then expanding again and colliding with the skull, trying to leak out through his eyes, through his ears, through his clogged throat. It was unbearable. He leaned forward and started typing.
“Citadel docks tomorrow at twenty hundred. Don’t be late.”
Ten agonizing minutes later, the VI reported receiving a burst. It contained a single word.
He nodded, and it didn’t hurt. The headache was retreating. Good, because he’d have to clean up.
But there was something strange… something missing. The Virial was deep into FTL journey when he realized what it was. The buzzing. He could no longer hear the buzzing.