Chapter 6 of The Precedent
In the early hours of the morning, Elthe awoke and insisted to use the bathroom and take a shower on her own. She would not be dissuaded. Saren had zero authority over her and all he could do was pace in front of the bathroom door, waiting for the inevitable bump when she could no longer keep herself upright. It didn’t come, but she collapsed in his arms as soon as she reemerged.
They set her up in the cabin, then. Tiny as it was, the cot there was still more comfortable than the hoverbed; plus, that way they could use the rest of the ship without disturbing her. Saren needed to make a call from the conferencing projector in the commons. A call he dreaded but could no longer postpone. The anxiety made him irritable and disagreeable: bitchy, as Nihlus would surely put it if not for the child on board. But their last night’s encounter pacified him unproportionally and he grinned like an idiot all morning, even when Saren asked him to stay in the cockpit for an hour, playing games or whatever he did in his free time when the gym was unavailable.
Saren wished sex had such an effect on him. Or drink, or drugs. When he faced an unpleasant duty—and all his duties were unpleasant—nothing could take the edge off.
He paced in front of the projector for five minutes, trying to center himself. He was unused to failure. When he finally made the call, they told him to wait, so he paced for another five minutes, feeling the buildup of pointless anger. It would only undermine his efforts to remain in control, but he couldn’t stop it. He was unused to waiting, too.
“I came as quick as I could,” Benezia said, and there was indeed a hint of short breath in her voice. Saren took in her elegant figure. It was strange to see her wearing such vivid colors, and nothing on her head. She carried an empty glass. A dark, viscous residue betrayed its missing contents as Fonore plum liquor; a blush on her cheeks and abundant cleavage betrayed that she’d had more than that one glass of it. She seemed to be attending a party. “I fear you will have to be brief,” she added when he didn’t respond immediately. “I cannot stay long.”
“Elethea is back,” he said. He wished he had the power of telepathy himself right now, and the ability to use it at a distance, like a Reaper. It was going to take so many words to explain the situation. Words he didn’t want to say or hear.
“Something went wrong,” Benezia said, her eyes widening in alarm. Some telepathy did exist between them. But it wasn’t going to suffice. “Was she discovered?”
“Goddess.” She put a hand over her mouth. “Were we?”
“I don’t believe so. I sent Nihlus to extract her. He doesn’t know anything,” he hurried to add, foreseeing her next question. “Elthe can’t speak. They have… damaged her, somehow. She seems perfectly lucid but she’s aphasic. Talks nonsense. This is why I called. To seek your wisdom and help with this, if you can spare any.” He gave up staring at the floor to look in her eyes. “I don’t know how to retrieve what she learned.”
“Have you tried melding with her?”
Heat rushed up Saren’s neck. “Only superficially.”
“You mean, hand-holding,” she said with that perfectly measured dose of condescension he could neither ignore nor be offended by.
“It was enough to find it’s not just her words that are nonsense. Her mind is scrambled. Her recent memories are dominated by the trauma. I couldn’t see through it. And neither can she.”
Benezia hummed. “I cannot recall anything similar. It is strangely specific, is it not? As if tailored to…” Her gaze had gone unfocused in contemplation, but now she fixed it on Saren with a sudden intensity. “Are you sure she has not done it herself?”
“To protect you,” Benezia said matter-of-factly. “She might have buried both the memories of her mission and her discoveries, if any, too deep for an invading mind to find.” She nodded, as if all the pieces were coming together to solve some puzzle that had appeared difficult at first but was now revealed to be embarrassingly simple. “The more I think about it, the more likely it seems. If I am correct, it is a testament to her loyalty and courage. But why did they not kill her once she made herself useless?”
Saren’s vision darkened by a shade. Elthe was not useless. Still struggling to process the idea that her strange condition was self-inflicted, he blurted out an answer before he could think it through. “I used a proxy to offer a prothean lens prism as ransom. But Nihlus managed to extract her before the exchange took place.”
“A prothean lens prism,” Benezia repeated slowly. She stepped closer to the camera, all traces of tipsy cheer gone from her demeanor. “Is that why you paid my daughter an unexpected—and unsanctioned—visit? To steal an artifact from her collection? How many times have I told you that I do not want her involved? What if the theft is blamed on her? What if it is somehow connected to you, and our endeavor, and me?”
“It will not.” Saren cursed himself for letting it slip. Liara was sacred grounds and treading on it had been a calculated risk. But now it was no longer a risk. It was acute danger. “If I’m good at something,” he said, “I’m good at covering my tracks. The choice I had was between hiring someone to do it, with unpredictable collaterals, and doing it myself. The latter option was safer. There was no option to not do it or I would’ve obviously chosen that. I’m not stupid. I know your grudges last for decades.” He clenched his mandibles. “I apologize. It won’t happen again.”
“It better not.” With her chin held high and dark fury burning in her eyes, she was somehow perfectly able to look down on him even though he was taller than her by a head. “I expect the artifact will be returned. Undamaged. With a plausible explanation that will cause no further enquiry.”
“Of course. I had a plan for that before I took it. And another, in case it could not be returned. I took every precaution. But you know as well as I that the only way to protect Liara from our endeavor is to make her give up the fieldwork.”
“And you should know better than to give me parenting tips. You couldn’t raise a captive pyjack, let alone a child. Especially one this stubborn,” she added after a moment, perhaps realizing she might’ve gone too far. With an exhale, she shrunk back into her usual form. “Either way. Where were we?”
Saren cleared his throat, trying to clear his mind too. Her last remark stung, and now he found himself rehearsing the steps he had taken to keep Eleni safe, fed and rested for the night and the day she had been in his care. He suspected Benezia was entirely right, and he was the least suited man of his generation to ever raise children. But why would he care? And how was she so consistently able to tilt his balance?
“You were about to tell me how I’m to proceed with Elthe.”
“Is it not obvious? Meld with her. Fully.”
“I can’t. Not with…that purpose. It would be a breach. The same breach the Athamists have made.”
“Nonsense. Seek her consent. I am sure she will give it. Have you not slept together before?”
Saren swallowed the embarrassment. He had feared it would come to this. “Many years ago. But it is of no consequence. Even if she does agree, it would still be… exploitative.”
Benezia snorted. “And sending her among them to begin with was not? Did you not exploit her affection for Nerada? Her desire for revenge? While keeping your true motives a secret? Please, Saren, do not waste my time. What is the real problem?”
“Is it not obvious?” he said, viciously mimicking her patronizing tone. “If we meld, and I reach these hidden depths of her mind—she will reach the hidden depths of mine.”
“Well…” She looked in her empty glass, then tipped it up above her mouth, trying to hide her confusion. Apparently, this had not occurred to her. “Do not show her,” she said at last. “Keep your… passion in check. It shouldn’t be an issue.”
“Perhaps for an asari. I don’t have that kind of control.”
Benezia’s omni buzzed. She hushed it without looking. “Perhaps you should let her see.” Glancing left and right as if to check if she could speak freely, she took another step toward the camera and spoke in a whisper. “You could take her on board the Sovereign. I am sure They would know how to get the information out of her. Elethea would make a powerful ally. And Goddess knows we could use all the help we can get.”
“What an excellent idea,” Saren squeezed through clenched teeth. “While we’re at it, let’s also take Nihlus and Liara for a tour of Their Benevolent Magnificence. The two of them would be even more valuable assets, don’t you think?”
He steeled himself for another venomous retort, but after a moment’s consideration, Benezia just nodded and stepped back. “I fear that is all the advice I can offer. If you will not take it…”
Saren rubbed his forehead, grasping for straws. “If you’re right, and she inflicted this condition on herself, there must be a way to reverse it. Psychological therapy? Medication? Meditation? She wouldn’t have done it otherwise. She has greater concerns than protecting my identity.”
“Protecting her child.”
“Ah. I have forgotten about that.” Her eyes narrowed. “How old?”
“It’s not mine, if that’s what you’re thinking.” He growled with frustration. “Can’t you just answer my questions?”
“No, Saren, I cannot ‘just answer your questions’. I am not military, or one of your minions, to be ordered around.”
For a few moments, he stared at her motionlessly, still hung up on what she had insinuated. Eleni was… exactly seven years old. It was possible. And the similarities in character were certainly not lacking. They were even more pronounced now than two years ago, when he had first seen the girl. But that was easily explained by Elthe’s obsessive interest, both personal and professional, in people with atypical neurological makeups. No. She would’ve told him. This was just another cheap provocation. He deflated and shook his head.
After a while, Benezia heaved a long sigh. “Yes, her condition can probably be reversed. Whatever has caused this, modern asari psychiatry deals successfully with issues much more severe. But it would take months, at the very least. Possibly years. We cannot afford to wait that long. If we do not act at once, it might all have been in vain.”
“It would also be useful to learn how she was discovered. Names, Saren. The place is not enough, if we are to both get our prize and keep it. We need something we can use as leverage.”
“You will do what needs to be done, then?”
Benezia’s omni buzzed again, and this time, she checked the message. “I have to get back. Do not look at me that way. None of this is my fault. If you had asked me for advice before things turned dire, I would have voted against sending a friend on a mission of such import.”
“Really, Saren, I am certain most of your duties are much grimmer,” she went on with one arm squared at her hip, and the other waving the empty glass like a teaching requisite. “If you worry you will make her condition worse, allow me to assure you it is not likely. You may, in fact, be in a unique position to make it better. Melding with you might help her regain a portion of her cognitive integrity. Perhaps enough to enable rapid healing. You have been friends for a long time, and no matter how many years pass, your nervous system still carries the imprint from your previous couplings. Think of that if you feel so squeamish.”
She scrounged her face in distaste and ended the transmission.
Saren stared at the void that took her place for several deep breaths, searching for his lost balance in vain. He was teeming with helpless anger. Had she been in the same room, he was sure he would’ve punched her smug face. Closing his eyes, he imagined with perfect clarity the snap of broken bone, the squish of cartilage beaten into a pulp, the spray of purple blood on his carapace. His chest ached.
His omni buzzed.
“You should get down here,” Nihlus wrote. “We have a problem.”