Mental Encryption

Chapter 4 of The Precedent

Saren was soon assured it was true. Elthe’s own omnitool couldn’t make sense of her voice commands any more than he and Nihlus. The dark suspicions about the origin of her aphasia kept his gut in a constant twist but he had to remain clear-headed. Asking about it directly would only retraumatize her. And he couldn’t ask about her mission directly either with Nihlus within earshot. He hated that he’d been forced to involve either of them. And the child too. Damn child, and damn Elthe for having one!

Calm down. You’re better than that.

He rolled his neck, waiting for the water to boil. Tea for the adults, a savory snack—jerky of some sort—for the child. He had to admit that, minus the hiding, Eleni was as good as a child could get. She didn’t yell and run around, knocking things off. She didn’t crave attention and could entertain herself for hours unattended. She preferred news to children’s cartoons and spoke rarely enough to make even Saren look verbose in comparison. If he had to pick a child, that’s the kind of child he’d pick.

Nihlus, on the other side…he had always been a handful. Helpful, yes, but high maintenance. He was still recovering from the shock of the accidental meld with Elthe, his skin ashen, his demeanor uncharacteristically quiet. Saren had interrogated him shortly after the experience, hoping to avoid the need of subjecting to it himself, but he learned nothing. All Nihlus could recollect were random images and feelings, no landmarks, names or faces. If it were anyone else, Saren would press them until he squeezed every last iota of intel out of their memory. But he couldn’t press Nihlus in his present condition. It would only raise suspicion.

He hated dancing around other people’s weaknesses. Face your damn fears! Grab them by the throat, strangle and bury them. Paying them respect will only nurture them, make them grow and gain even more power over you. Bah!

The small cube of levo-sugar intended for Elthe’s cup crumbled between his fingers and he almost cursed aloud. Damn it all to hell and back! The urge to pound his fists on the kitchen things was almost too strong to resist.

“Thanks,” Nihlus murmured, taking his cup. Elthe just nodded. Eleni was too busy pacing between the viewports on the opposite sides of the commons in some strange game only she could understand, to even notice the plate he offered. Saren left it near the projector. At last he settled too; Nihlus had dragged both barstools from the kitchen so that they could sit near the hoverbed. His bones ached with exhaustion and his implants were charged for the headache of the century. He sipped his tea gingerly.

“They are forced to retreat for a small priest,” Elthe said after a minute of silence. “I think it’s the towel to meet. I wrote it on the black door.”

Saren studied her for a while, unsure if she would continue. The dark facial markings made her face seem unfamiliar. She must’ve had them done as camouflage against accidental recognition. Hardly something that could stand up to scrutiny by another asari who knew her, but enough to hide her identity in a crowd. They could’ve easily fooled Saren if he didn’t know better.

“They,” he repeated at last. “The Athamists?”

She shook her head. “A small black and white man.”

“The priest?”

She shook her head again, frustration wrinkling her forehead. “A small room with a black shirt and a white dress.”

“A room with a black door? Were you supposed to meet someone there? A small man?” He was feeling the frustration too. What was small to an asari? “A volus?”

“A small wooden table and a baby and a man and a woman and coffee music at the end of the building. Black and white, ill of like.” She was about to cry again, eyes already filling with tears. “I don’t want to right the special time and become him.”

“It’s ok,” Nihlus said. “Take it easy. Let’s all take it easy, yeah?”

Saren grunted into his tea. She had started it. But Nihlus was right; pushing wasn’t going to work. Elthe’s speech seemed to get worse when she was upset.

“How about we ask you some yes-no questions,” Nihlus said. “For starters.”

Elthe nodded, wiping her cheeks.

“Just now… were you asking about Eleni?”

Her face brightened with an excited smile and she nodded enthusiastically.  “On a mountain! A circle of envelopes on the hill!”

Of course. What was small to a mother? The child. That she would enquire about her daughter first, and not the mission, also made sense, in that parallel universe where there was a logic to emotional decisions. Not something Saren would’ve come up with offhand.

“Alright,” Nihlus said, tiredly smiling back. His subvocals betrayed a deep exhaustion, the kind that called for weeks of vacation, not a couple hours of napping. But Elthe didn’t know him well enough to notice. “How about… Saren tells us how their day together was, hm? I know I’ve been dying to hear about it.”

He was apparently reading Elthe’s mind—perhaps in consequence of the meld? She kept nodding at his every word and now she made a begging gesture in Saren’s direction. “Huge water? Mountain and nest.”

“Nothing to report,” he said and shrugged. What was there to say? The girl was here and obviously didn’t lack a blade from her crest. But Elthe’s bright, expectant expression softened his resolve. “I went there as soon as I got your message. Lethas and Farra sedated her for the journey. Don’t worry,” he said in reply to her anticipated concern. “They won’t be easy to find.” The aged salarian, Lethas, was ex STG; and Ferra was a huntress, one of Nerada’s chosen, young by asari standards but likely more experienced than Nihlus. Saren wished he could’ve taken her with him too. But it was safer to split. Both caretakers had left Elthe’s home on Thessia carrying a fake child of their own, to fool the surveillance.

“She slept till mid-morning,” he continued, leaving out the part where he had left her for two hours unattended while he made the obligatory appearance at the human embassy reception. “When she woke, she tried to hide from me, at first. But eventually she dressed on her own and ate her breakfast. She’s been very good,” he added in the end, thinking it a thing a parent might want to hear.

And indeed, the short report seemed to have made Elthe disproportionately happy. She clutched at the string of her bra over her heart and her eyes were full of tears again—tears of joy, this time, or relief, or love. A good feeling, Saren decided, giving up the effort to name it. Whatever trauma she’d been through, combined with the drug-like aftereffects of the large doses of medigel, made her unusually emotional. He’d never seen her cry before, even during the crisis surrounding Nerada’s death.

“He was going to be a bit of a man who was going to be a bit of the same,” Elthe said. She’d forgotten that they wouldn’t understand. Remembering, she used her hands to mime Eleni’s repetitive game with the thresher toy.

“Oh,” Saren said. He exchanged a panicked glance with Nihlus. “That’s a—”

“—trophy,” Nihlus jumped in. “A thresher maw—”

“—tooth.” Saren cleared his throat. “Harmless. Also, priceless, but she won’t be able to damage it.”

“Hmm.” Elthe looked suspiciously at one, then the other. “He was in a large room with a small way for the water.” For a moment she awaited a reply, then lifted her hands to signal that it didn’t matter.

Nihlus made a show of tipping his empty cup upside down over his face. When he stood up to stretch, crumbs of caked mud and dried blood fell out of his suit’s joints and peppered the floor. He gave Saren a mortified look, but Saren shook his head. It hardly mattered. The place was a mess either way.

Elthe watched the exchange with a lopsided smile. It was fair to assume that many people suspected Saren and Nihlus were more than friends, but she was among the very few who knew it. And she had been eager to witness it for years. “Go to a sea to lose him,” she said. “Concluded it by speaking loudly, but I’ve been cutting many things.”

When neither of them tried to turn it into a conversation, her cheer subsided. She leaned back and closed her eyes with a long sigh. Meanwhile, Nihlus had taken all their empty cups to the kitchen. Glancing sideways, Saren saw that the girl had finally stopped pacing; she now stood at the starboard viewport and stared out at the darkness around them, rocking back and forth on her heels. He used to do this as a child too. Stare through the windows for hours, not really seeing, and weave his elaborate daydreams. Her snack lay untouched where he had left it.

Nihlus squeezed his shoulder. The touch lingered long enough for the warmth to pass through layers of clothing and remind him of their brief, incomplete encounter in the dark of the hallway last night. Something stirred inside him: not quite desire, not quite guilt. Rather a sudden and immense fatigue. He was tired of wearing his myriad masks. One for Nihlus, one for Elthe, one for every person of any import in his life. Only Sovereign saw him unmasked. Saren shuddered. He wondered what it was like: his true self. He had no idea.

Sensing his tension, Nihlus retreated. “Eleni?” he said as he crouched next to the girl. “Saren probably didn’t tell you,” he continued in a conspiratorial whisper, “but we have a tank down in the hangar. A TMV8900X, no less. More commonly known as the Rhino. Would you like to see it?”

“Eleni?” Elthe said when the girl made no sign of noticing she had been spoken to. She reacted to the sound of her mother’s voice, though, and turned around to cast a furtive glance in the direction of the hoverbed. “It’s going to be the arm. Drunk doing laundry.”

“Yes, mama,” the girl said, as if she understood perfectly. Nihlus looked at Saren, a question in his eyes, and Saren looked at Elthe, but drifting in and out of a drowse, she didn’t seem to register anything out of the ordinary.

“Alright, then,” Nihlus said. “Off we go.”

As they left the commons, the girl’s hand obediently hooked around Nihlus’s talon, Saren silently thanked him.

“I say this remembering it isn’t in the same dream,” Elthe said.

Saren regarded her, unable to stop himself from trying to decipher her words. They almost made sense. To someone else, outside their conversation, they might sound like normal speech. He shook his head. “Do you know how this happened?” he said. “The aphasia.”

A pained expression wrinkled her face. She bobbed her head from side to side, neither a yes nor a no.

“You’re not sure?”

She nodded.

“Was it drugs?”

She shook her head.

“Something they did to you.”

She turned away from his stare. Stupid question. Of course it was something they did to her. He even had an idea what that something was. He had done his homework on the ancient asari torture methods practiced by the Athamists, each one a different flavor of deranged and ingenious, an art of turning brutality to subtlety and the other way around. A fresh wave of anger arose in him, both at the invisible enemy and at himself. She wouldn’t have done it if not for his insisting. Perhaps a decade ago, before she was a parent, her own curiosity and her unwavering sense of justice would’ve been enough. As it was, he had needed to call upon every available resource to persuade her. Because they both knew what kind of risks it would entail.

The most important question now, was if it had been worth it. His pulse quickened. “Did you succeed? Do you know where it is?”

She gave him a long, heavy look. Her bloodshot eyes were wet with tears once more. She nodded. But then, just as Saren sighed with relief, she shook her head and buried her face in her hands, sobbing.

No longer able to hold back, he went to her side. “Yes and no—but what does that mean?” His thoughts raced in a dozen threads, each trying to outshout the others with its dark predictions, but he could only voice one at a time. “Did you learn the location, but it’s inaccessible? Lost, somehow, like Ilos?” But how could that be? They knew it was on Thessia. “Buried in some ruin? Or damaged? Destroyed?” She kept shaking her head. “Or did they take you to it, but you don’t know the actual location?” Even without a location, the confirmation that the Athamists were hiding a functioning prothean beacon would count as success. “Did you see it? Did you touch it?”

“It would be?” she cried, raising her hands to ward off his advance. “A freeway where she isn’t going, and the other once can be the same man, my father and a resort and fields in the water. Heavens!”

“Alright.” He took a step back. He had unwittingly crowded her, getting into her face and yelling like she was some lowlife criminal. “Alright. I’ll slow down.” And he tried, taking a deep breath, but his heart was beating hard and fast and would not be placated. He had toiled and waited for this for decades. “Was that a yes?” He had to know. “Did you see it?”

She huffed in annoyance, then finally nodded. “She says she has a large piece of the door. Oh, for week and ship.” She pointed at her eyes. Yes, I saw it. She then rubbed her many, thin fingers against her thumbs and shook her head. No, I didn’t touch it.

Saren exhaled. “Good.” He inhaled. He couldn’t seem to get enough air. “We can work with this. At least it wasn’t for nothing. All this.” He pointed awkwardly at her broken form. “I’m going to find it, and I’m going to find them, and I’m going to skin every last one of them alive.” His chest ached. He needed space. He needed to hit something hard enough to break skin and bone.

He turned away from her and went to the starboard viewport, then paced to the port one, and back, and again, retreading the girl’s steps. So, it was true. There was a prothean beacon on Thessia. Practically in plain sight, compared to some of the places he’d searched. Oh, they had suspected it for a long time, but it was still a shock, to know it with certainty. He’d have to tell Benezia. But not before he learned the location too, or there’d be no end to her mockery.

“The people are going in,” Elthe said after a while, interrupting his intense focus. “They’re trying to see the back of the river. But I’m happy to sit on it. Like a door.”

“I need the location,” Saren replied. Approaching the bed again, he brought up the globe of Thessia, half a meter wide, on his omni. “Show me.”

Elthe sighed and shook her head, but before the globe made half a turn, she spun it back. Then the other way around. As she frowned, concentrating, her lips formed silent words, like trying to taste the names of different places for a matching flavor. Saren held his breath.

But after a while, she threw herself back on the pillows in a show of defeat. “It’s a big one, that feeling.”

“You can’t remember.”

She shook her head to confirm. “I’m seated in the room with a woman who’s holding the door.” She sounded exhausted, and when she looked at Saren there was that deep, dark tranquility to her stare again, a resignation, an acceptance. Surrender?

He wouldn’t have it. “If I must list every place and permutation of possible outcomes so you can confirm or deny it, so be it. Anything would be faster than searching Thessia on foot. Now that they know we know, they might move it, or even destroy it to prevent us from revealing the truth to the public. I know you’re scared and tired,” he said in a softer tone. “If you need to rest, we can go on later. But we must go on.”

Her gaze turned inwards as she weighed his words. The antique analog clock counted the seconds of arrested silence with infinite patience, its ticks getting louder and louder until Saren could hardly bear it. But then Elthe reached some decision and moved at last—to offer him her hand.

It was Saren’s turn now to ponder. If he accepted, there’d be no hiding from his own guilt for inflicting on her whatever horrors she was about to share.

Face your damn fears!

He swallowed and took it.

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