Chapter 8 of The Precedent
As the rented skycar sped away along the misty Citadel airway with Nihlus and Eleni tucked inside, Saren’s anxiety mounted. He retreated into the airlock, closed the outer hatch and locked it with a code Nihlus didn’t have. The ship was his, for the time. His and Elthe’s.
Once more, he went over it in his thoughts. The alternatives were only worse. If he did nothing and allowed Elthe the time to heal and remember on her own, the chances of finding the beacon again were nil, and her suffering in vain. And if it had to be done, it was indeed better that he did it than… someone else.
He shuddered. Blood was hot in his neck and cheeks, the sweat cold under his crest. His hands and feet were freezing. He took to pacing up and down the commons again.
Alright—say he would do it. But how? Someone like Nihlus would have no trouble with this sort of… task. But, not counting his calculated overtures with Sparatus, Saren had never seduced anyone in his entire life. He had only ever allowed himself to be seduced and he could hardly imagine that Elthe would be interested, in her current state, to do him the favor of seducing him again. And even if all of that was somehow… arranged. How was he, in his current state, to muster an interest in sex? He had no interest in sex even in the best of times. Even with Nihlus, he almost never sought it himself—which wasn’t to say he didn’t enjoy it when it happened. Perhaps…
He stopped short and, with eyes closed, recalled their last night’s coupling, willing the sensory details to load from memory and wash over him again. Yes, that awoke desire. But it was too feeble to contend with the anxiety even for a fleeting moment. And it was a specific desire: for more of the same. Elthe could never play that role in his life. No one but Nihlus could.
That settled it, then. He would go down in history as the only man who could’ve saved the clueless Galaxy from another extinction—but failed because he couldn’t get a hardon. And that was fine. Let it all go to hell! Let the Reapers reap, let everyone die and let life begin anew. What did he care? He could lie and steal and murder, but he had never signed up for this. It was physically impossible.
The extranet disagreed. In a millisecond, his search delivered a hundred different drugs that made it eminently possible. Disgusted, he scrolled through the list on his omni. Narrowed the search to eliminate potentially toxic and allergenic compounds and anything that’s been in use for less than a decade. Leaving three dozen products that had been tried and tested by millions of satisfied turians with minimal side-effects. The prices were all about the same. He picked one at random and watched 129.99 credits drain off his account for a single dose. Synthesize? the omni offered. Yes. Inject?
He stood there, counting the hammer-strikes of his heartbeat. Am I doing this? Am I really doing this?
Other than a brief touch of warmth around the subdermal injector on his forearm, he didn’t feel a thing. But he could swear he could sense the foreign substance spread through his body, invading and contaminating it. He wondered if the nanites, Sovereign’s hateful messengers and spies that effectively held him hostage, would counter the effects. A part of him wished it.
Another part of him came to life so suddenly it almost gave him a start. So soon? It hadn’t been five minutes since Nihlus had left with the girl, and not even one since he had taken the drug.
Well. It worked as advertised.
By the time he returned to the cabin, either the drug or the anxiety had made his pulse race as if he had been sprinting. Standing in front of the door, he labored to calm down and slow his breathing, but the pulse would not slow. His chest ached. Perhaps he would instead go down in history as the man who tried to save the clueless Galaxy from extinction by forcing himself on his oldest friend but failed due to a heart attack.
Elthe reclined on the heap of pillows in her underwear, the blanket Nihlus had brought from the Othrys cast to the side. Was it only his imagination, or was she looking at him strangely, like she knew what he was up to? He cleared his throat and stepped deeper inside the small room so the door would close. Directed by the circumstances of his visit to focus on her body, he noted that the bruises on her side had faded into dark-rimmed blotches of brown and green, like ink stains. It was a good sign. She would make a full recovery, he nodded to himself. Yes. That’s why he was there. To help her recover.
She snorted. “Trying to get the chair up the stairs but it’s in a water a bit, eh?”
Distracted by the bodily sensations that could not be more incongruous with his state of mind, Saren thought, for a moment, that her speech was back to normal. To hide his confusion, he pulled up the chair and sat facing her. “I spoke with Benezia earlier today,” he said. “About your… condition.”
Elthe rolled her eyes. “By the stage there lies a widow.”
“Who else could I ask for advice? I know you two aren’t fond of each other, but we’re all on the same side in this matter.”
“He’s comforted with me,” she grunted, making a disgusted face. “He looks all over the highchair and then takes to flight. Sunshine above me and put a shower from the canvas on the door.” At last she folded her arms under her breasts. “So? Return from the ride?”
“She said—” Saren had to gasp for air. “She said that I might be able to help you restore order to your memories. ‘Restore her cognitive integrity,’ were her exact words.” He stared at the blanket, zooming in on its synthetic fiber hairs, then on the particles of dust caught between them. “By melding with you. Fully. That way we could retrieve the location of the beacon, and their base of operations, and everything else you have learned. So we could rid the world of them.” He hazarded a glance over her shoulder. “But more importantly, it might help you recover faster. She said—” There was a lot of dust in that blanket. “—it might take months or years for you to regain normal speech with conventional psychotherapy. And that I still carry the imprint of your neural template even though it has been so—”
“Modern beyond me,” Elthe said softly. “Coming to forgive and rain on the seed. Struggle with the knowledge of the water.”
Her nonsensical utterances had a humorous sound, but Saren didn’t dare look at her face.
“Or first? Out of the afternoon?”
When he kept staring stubbornly ahead, she reached for him and with a single finger barely touching his chin, turned his head towards her. It reminded him with extraordinary clarity of the days of his youth under her expert supervision, exercising his fledgling biotics, yes, but also teaching him to reconcile the world within and the world without. With an immense effort, he looked in her kind, dark eyes.
“Out of the afternoon?” she repeated.
“I am willing, if that’s what you’re asking.” He swallowed, feeling absurdly restrained by the tip of her finger on his chin. “Are you?”
“In the afternoon and extremely old,” she said. Then with a smile that didn’t quite take hold, she nodded.
Saren froze. Not in the abrupt way people freeze upon seeing a weapon pointed at them; he froze slowly, one numb extremity after another, as the reality of the situation settled in. He knew he was supposed to demonstrate his willingness now, somehow. Look at her, touch her, with eroticism that just wasn’t there. He couldn’t move a muscle.
Elthe laughed. “The father’s house is dark and demanding, hard to reach.” Releasing his chin, her fingers trailed up his right mandible, then higher, to explore the scars on his horn. He closed his eyes, resisting the urge to lean out of reach. “I’m gathering goods to return to the last machine. Does Nihlus run there?”
“Yes, Nihlus did that,” Saren murmured. He was more than half-sure that wasn’t her question, but it didn’t matter. Presenting as vulnerable and uncomfortable enough to share intimate secrets might entreat her to take the lead, as she had in the past. There was no other way this would work. But how could she? He opened his eyes to appraise her physical condition. She could barely move her arm without wincing in pain, let alone something more. Even with medigel, broken ribs were notoriously slow to heal.
“My weight, my back, my spine.”
Saren looked at her, uncomprehending.
“It will hurt because they’re not parted,” she tried to explain. “Nihlus and Eleni. Gathering goods to return?”
Ah. “If you’re asking whether I arranged for them to leave so you and I could be alone—no. It was Nihlus’s idea. But I did tell him you needed blood replacement, and that my medical unit was running low. They’ll have to go to Huerta for it. We should have at least a couple hours.” The chatter felt as alien in his mouth as the massive erection between his legs, but if they had to talk, it was, for once, better he did the talking. “I lied, of course. I’d never take off without a full stock of medical supplies. And you don’t really need blood replacement either.” He took the opportunity to place a hand on her bruised flank. “Is it tender? I don’t know how to…the last thing I want is to hurt you even more.”
Her skin was incredibly warm, and he realized with a delay that the slight flinch at his touch was probably caused by his skin being incredibly cold. Elthe shook her head, then took his hand and held it in both of hers, warming it. Next, she pulled it towards her face and kissed it. She kissed his knuckles and ran her tongue along his talons. Saren watched anxiously, hoping for at least a trickle of arousal, no matter how small, to help him out, but nothing happened. He could never understand what kind of sex appeal he could possibly have, especially for aliens, but experience had taught him that he did have some, and apparently Elthe still responded to it. Genuine desire sparked in her eyes, and he was grateful his own could not betray the utter lack of the same in him.
She beckoned him closer. She wanted to kiss. Bracing an elbow on the side of the bed next to her pillows, Saren leaned over her and complied. Nihlus had told him that the tongue, long by the standards of most aliens, was the second most sought-after feature of turian anatomy. And he had taught Saren to use his for remarkable effects. Elthe moaned and writhed. Still gripping his hand, she directed it down along her body, over the mound of her breast and the valley of her stomach. Obediently, Saren wormed a finger inside her underwear and felt her moist folds. When she backed away from the kiss to take air and groan, the oily film of the inner lids had already covered her eyes.
Saren stood tall, his heart beating furiously against his ribcage, his robe tenting in front of him in a vulgar display. Elthe’s hand navigated deftly between its flaps, grabbed him, and started stroking. Yet still, he felt nothing but a mild nausea. Like morning erections, this one was insensitive despite its abundance. She might as well have been stroking his spur.
Well. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about “keeping his passion in check”.
Without ceremony, he took off his clothes, piling them on the chair, then carefully slid Elthe’s panties down her legs. She seemed impossibly small and delicate under him when he mounted the bed. A grimace of pain distorted her features while they maneuvered into position but was soon replaced by an expression of surrender and lust. With arms secured upwards of her shoulders and keel hovering as high above her chest as possible, Saren angled his hips and pushed.
The meld began almost instantly. A dreamlike mist enveloped him, mercifully attenuating the awareness of his body and its discordant senses. He was within the mist, and then he was the mist, a small, irregular nebula in a universe devoid of distant light or matter. Elthe was a nebula too, but different. Larger by an order of magnitude, folded in some nameless but perfectly precise shape, and infinitely more complex.
They floated closer and closer, carried by the gravity of intent. The meld distorted the sense of time. A quarter of an hour or less than a minute might have passed outside. Regardless, he had to hurry and prepare himself. Detach a part of his inner world and leave it hanging by the thinnest thread of thought that Elthe would hopefully not detect. He had done something similar in all their encounters after his discovery of Sovereign. But it had been a long time. The part to detach had been smaller, easier to contain, draw borders around and manage as an entirely separate personality all those years ago. Now, almost everything about him was involved with his quest in one way or another, and only a tattered, ill-defined residual remained after cutting all of that out. His work for the Council, his political activity and a few of his investments, the carefully maintained front of his friendship with Benezia, and of course, Nihlus. He hoped Elthe would be drawn to that last aspect of him, the only one that still resembled a whole, like she had been in their yesterday’s superficial meld.
It was a dangerous game. Asari had developed many evolutionary adaptations around their unique reproduction system, among them a host of psychological tricks to preserve privacy while sharing mind-space. Effortless for them, they were a major challenge for anyone else, and could have a spectrum of unwanted effects, some as mild as a temporary memory loss, others as severe as Elthe’s strange mental fragmentation. It was too late to weigh such consequences, however. He was committed, and so was she, and they were past the point of no return.
Outside, his body went through the motions. Through the thickening veil of the meld, he observed that Elthe wasn’t in any pain, and indeed seemed to be enjoying herself. For the first time, Saren felt a flicker of something akin to arousal. But then he was sucked into the violent whirlwind of her consciousness.
The chaos in there was of mythical proportions. Like the shallow dreams following tense combat situations, images and concepts swarmed, ebbed and flowed in malignant waves. The dungeon, the miniature circle of light and freedom high above and out of reach, the bucket, the nausea. Fists in her chest, knees on her spine, screams in her ears, from all sides at once. They paraded in their prothean costumes, with triangular, many-eyed masks and fairy wings sticking out from the back. At once ridiculous and frightening in their insanity. Some sort of ritual, twisted, menacing, an altar, a pyre. The blue of biotic lift, threatening to rend her bound limbs from her floating body. Pain too great to take. Dark again, silence, the dungeon, the bucket. A different mask leaning above her. A familiar voice.
Instantly he was transported into his own memory, and she followed, and allowing her to witness it was possibly the bravest thing he had ever done. In the darkened cockpit, he knelt. Not naked but thoroughly dishevelled. His hands were tied at the wrists behind his back with his headscarf. His face was wet with tears and drool. Nihlus held his head in place and relentlessly thrusted into his mouth, with no consideration whatsoever of his discomfort or even his need to breathe. With no consideration of his age, status, relationships, responsibilities, riches, of the very fact that he was a person. Treating him worse than he would a whore. Treating him like he was a thing. Saren hated it. Who wouldn’t? Yet at the same time, he loved it. Wanted it. Needed it. Nothing else—no one else—could stop the world. Stop the incessant buzzing of his thoughts. Let him lose himself and forget everything. His lies and guilt and grand but grim destiny—
He clambered back with a startled gasp as the thin thread suddenly tightened. There was no need to pretend, as far as pretending was even possible, that he did it out of embarrassment. If embarrassment could kill, he’d be a dead man right now. Outside, Elthe’s back arched up and she cried in pleasure and pain of a climax. Saren realized with alarm that he wasn’t so far from it either. How long had they been at it?
The concept of time took on the dream-image of his mechanical clock, racing backwards. It was Elthe’s doing. She pulled him into the fraktaline mayhem of another, older memory. Granite floor, icy under her bare feet. A strangely fractured field of view, a narrow passage, erratic torchlight. The mask cut off her lateral vision and the silent stone sentinels that watched the procession from the sides borrowed monstrous, nightmarish shapes from her terrified imagination. Her right wing caught on something, but she couldn’t stop and when she jerked forward, she felt it tear. The shuffle of feet and the rustle of costumes surrounded her. There was nowhere to run.
Run! Strike, kick, claw, bite, lash out with biotics. Bones shattered, skulls crumbled, blood from half a dozen bodies pooled around her feet. But too many of them still drew breath. They swarmed around her, hundreds, thousands, fists, knees, screams. Crucified by their savage pull, helpless and wounded, she hung in the air, facing the beacon.
Saren felt the inexorable drag of his secret self, trying to assert itself, trying to take control and force the answers out of her. Where was that? She must’ve had a look around. What were those statues? There had to be something!
But what stopped him wasn’t his willpower or the professed concern for Elthe’s wellbeing. It was the blind horror upon sensing the sinister whispers of the Reaper’s presence, searching the deathly void that enveloped his consciousness. They had been alerted by his unusual activity. In moments, Their attention would be upon him.
Outside, he had stopped moving, paralyzed by panic that threatened to break the meld. Perhaps he should let it? End it before it was too late, before They found him. But he was so close! Just another moment and he would find what he was looking for. Elthe felt it too, and she urged him on, her hands on his buttocks desperate to pull him closer, misreading his hesitation as worry. “I dream of light,” she was saying, over and over. “I must dream of light!” Immersed deep inside her, body and mind alike, he understood her perfectly. “Don’t stop. Please, don’t stop!”
He plunged in, one last time. The narrow passage with the statues—it started from an oval hall with pews and displays—a church? A museum? An immense monument of Athame reigned supreme from a decorate alcove—a temple! But where? Which one!? It was lit with the soft hues of Thessian sunset that came through the tall entrance—and beyond it a terrace large enough to fit a battalion—and beyond it sprawled the unique, unmistakable skyline of Pellien.
Hidden in plain sight, the Thessian beacon had been right under their damn noses through all the years of toil and peril they had spent searching for it.
Unchecked euphoria hit Saren like a shot of stims and he only realized with a delay that it was the first throe of a forceful orgasm. It thundered through him, obliterating his self-control.
Well, well, whispered Sovereign.
Malformed, suppressed fears, stirred by Their presence, surfaced from the labyrinth of Saren’s forgotten nightmares. Now it was he who hung helpless in the air, crucified by cables that cut through skin and plate. Insatiable curiosity and cruelty vibrated in them as they snaked around his trembling limbs, spiraling higher and higher, intent on exploring every orifice. Alone in the entrails of the living ship, he was beyond help, beyond salvation. At Their mercy. And They found that concept… illogical.
Even in dreamtime, the flash was over in an instant. But Elthe had seen it alright. It had cut her own climax short, and the echoes of shock and fear, both his and hers, reverberated through the meld.
And then everything unraveled at once in an unstoppable cascade.
“What is this?” she gasped.
There was no time to celebrate the apparent recovery of her normal speech. The endeavor, which had for a moment seemed to be a shining success, threatened to turn into a catastrophe.
Give her to us.
The violent spasms still shook Saren’s frame as he struggled to hide himself from Elthe’s inner gaze and with an even greater urgency, hide her from Theirs. But she struggled back. The gentle lover’s embrace of their mingled minds turned into wrestling. She would not allow him to retreat from the meld until she had answers of her own.
“What are you doing?” she said, as that thin thread on which his secret life hung folded in on itself under the stress of her scrutiny and he became whole again. “What have you done?”
“What I had to,” he replied, trying to regain his breath amid the drumming of his heart. She had seen it now, she knew everything, and there was no point in hiding anymore, in lying. The relief that came over him with the realization that he’d never have to lie to her again was immense. What joy it would be, to have a friend, a true, trusted friend, someone who not only knew him, but loved him despite it, fight by his side!
“By the side of that monster? Against everything you know and love? Why? Saren, why?”
“So not all of it would be destroyed.”
“That’s insane! You’re insane! That thing has blinded you to reason. Saren,” she pleaded, caressing his shoulders. Back in normal time, back in their bodies, they were still locked in the coital position, panting, sweaty, wet and sticky. “Saren, please. Listen to me. It’s not too late. Come forward with what you have learned. Sparatus worships you and Tevos—”
They both froze in horror and astonishment as together they relived, in a flash, another fragment of Elthe’s memory. In the chamber of the beacon, where the others had marched her in, a figure clad in a much more elaborate and grandiose version of the winged garment stood as the centerpiece of the ritual. Elthe had known to expect it. Athame as Maiden greeted new members in a similar ceremony; this was Athame as Matron, here to initiate her in the lowest circle of the cult’s mysteries; and eventually, Athame as Matriarch would initiate her into the highest. But of course, she would never get that far. The initiation began with ritual unmasking. And in Elthe’s case, that’s where it had ended too.
“—is a friend,” Elthe had meant to say before the revelation.
“—is one of them,” Saren said after it. He could almost laugh out of surprise and a sort of childish glee. So, he wasn’t the only one to lie, wear a mask, and keep secrets that affected billions of lives. It was almost too good to be true. The best leverage Benezia could wish for.
But this wasn’t the time to speculate on the consequences of the unexpected discovery. Elthe had meant to implore him to speak with the Council. To say that, all these years since his discovery of the Sovereign, he had been gathering intel, so he could be sure of the Reaper’s intentions, but all in their service. To beg for their forgiveness.
But there was nothing to forgive. He was going to save the Galaxy and the Council would just stand in his way. And his way was the only way. Why couldn’t she see that?
She stilled and stared in his eyes. The final image he glimpsed through the meld was one of himself, twenty and more years ago, a skinny youth who would not speak nor look people in the eyes, firing up from within, for the first time without pain, and laughing, for the first time without pretense, as he floated half a meter above the ground. “My boy,” she sobbed. “My beautiful boy. How can you betray me too?”
“It doesn’t have to go that way.” Touched by the deep affection that permeated the memory, Saren leaned down in real-time and brushed Elthe’s forehead with his own before whispering into her ear. “You could join me.”
As an ally, as a friend, as a lover, whatever it took. He would leave Nihlus. He would leave his service as a Spectre and find other means, if only she would follow. Anything! Anything was better than the alternative.
Elthe laughed or sobbed or something in between. She was shaking her head, her mind made up.
“I’d rather die.”
But of course, she meant that she’d rather do her best to avoid it. By degrees, her grip on his consciousness became vicious, suffocating, and his vision darkened. She intended to make him faint, and then flee, taking his secrets with her, to the Council, to the media, to the detriment of all his efforts.
Suddenly it was no longer about persuading her. It was about stopping her. He was no equal to her on the mental battlefield, but he was also not alone. A moment of stillness, a wordless prayer at the altar of his true god, and Sovereign’s bottomless reservoir of power opened for him. The elation, the ecstasy of dipping into it made every other sensation fade. With savage joy, Saren tore the strangling tentacles of her consciousness off his own and broke the meld by force.
Let us have her, They whispered, urging him to go on. That way, you can have her too. Forever.
“No,” he breathed. “Stop it.”
“You stop it,” Elthe cried. Her hands clawed harmlessly at the plates on his chest while her eyes, slowly clearing, cast around for a means of escape. “Let me go. Saren, I’m warning you!”
“Elthe, calm down. Let us talk like—”
“No! Let go! Right now!” She was now beating at his chest and shoulders, but her arms had no strength. Crippled by the pain in her weakened core, she couldn’t wriggle her hips from under him. “I need to get back to Eleni. Goddess,” she whispered, her expression shifting with some sordid revelation. “What have you done with her? Where is she? Where is she?!”
The idea that she’d suspect him of kidnapping her child, or worse, made Saren recoil. Whatever she had seen in there, in him, she couldn’t have seen any foul intentions regarding the girl. But… who knows what she had seen lurking behind him.
Yes! The child, we want it! Give, give! Add to our perfection!
“Nothing,” he said, shaking his head clear. “I didn’t do anything. She’s safe, with Nihlus. Calm down!”
But she wasn’t listening. With full panic, now fueled not only by the fear for herself but with the far more empowering fear for her child, some of her strength returned, and she bucked up, trying to dislodge him, while punching his arms and sides and finally his chin. He tasted blood. She scraped skin off his shoulders and sank her teeth into his forearm. But it wasn’t until her hands wrapped around his neck and robbed him of air that her assault triggered his combat reflexes.
With a swift, practiced movement, he immobilized her arms, pinning them down to the bed. She gave him a furious look, then broke out in an explosive biotic attack. But he had felt it coming and raised his barrier.
“Elthe,” he warned. “Don’t do this.” His voice was distorted by the rippling of the mass effect field that grew and intensified around them. Confident that she could overpower him, she pressed on. A grimace of effort and blind rage disfigured her face. Damn! He should’ve knocked her out as soon as the meld was over. Instead he stupidly allowed the fight to escalate.
Yes! Yes! Show her the extent of our power!
“No,” he muttered, but his gut told him that he would have to, whether he wanted it or not. Holding off her attack was no easy feat and it was getting harder by the moment. Elthe was a formidable biotic. And she wasn’t above playing dirty. When he least expected it, she savagely butted her forehead into his. Aided by biotics in a kind of a vanguard charge, it would have smashed his skull in if not for his own barrier. Even with it, the force of the blow was almost enough to knock him out. Lights dimmed and sound went off. A dangerous, dull pain spread from his eye sockets to the back of his neck. Trembling blobs of blue blood floated, weightless, in the mass effect field around them.
Other things floated in it too. A datapad, one of his gloves, Elthe’s underwear. It was spreading. The bed was shaking, and the hatches of the overhead storage compartments were rattling. A large enough field might be detected from the outside. The docks were under constant surveillance for gravitational anomalies that might signal a ship’s core malfunction. Someone might come to check it out.
As if in direct reply to his rushed calculations, his omni beeped from somewhere. A call from Nihlus. What now? They couldn’t be back already. Could they?
The distraction almost cost him his life. Out of nowhere, he was bound and blinded. Something hairy and dusty capped his nostrils and filled his mouth. The blanket! With her hands trapped, Elthe lifted it using biotics and wrapped it around his head and neck. She wrung it tighter and tighter, strangling him like a constrictor. Panicked by the sudden loss of sight and air, Saren instinctively grabbed at the blanket with his hands—and released hers.
She stabbed him. Later he would discover that she used her own fingers, shaped into a blade and accelerated with biotics, to penetrate the skin in the seam between his pectoral plates. Decades of training and experience had prevented him from dropping his barrier when he’d reached for the blanket, or she would’ve struck his heart and killed him.
Shocked, he struck back, blindly. Something snapped. The buzz of biotics ceased, and the blanket relaxed into its usual limp fluffiness. Saren clawed it off his face and inhaled with a deathly groan, like a man drowning. Elthe was unconscious.
Ignoring the voice, Saren lowered his barrier, hoping that would make breathing easier. Even without the obstacle, he couldn’t get enough air and every labored breath threatened to tear his lungs. The wound on his abdomen bled profusely. Looking around for the weapon that had caused, it, he noticed the strange cramp in Elthe’s right hand, with all the fingers bunched up together to form a sort of cone. It was covered in his blood up to the wrist.
Aghast, he scrambled away, lost his balance and slid off the bed in a disgraceful pile. The floor was a mess of discarded clothes and small items that had been knocked off the desk and the shelves. Something crunched under his knee. His hands, slick with blood, left ghastly prints on everything he touched.
He stood up shakily, clutching the stab-wound, and went to get the med-kit from the bathroom. By the time he returned, the fat swat of medigel had mostly stopped the bleeding but he felt unaccountably weak. Unable to bend, he searched the things on the floor for his omnitool with his foot while holding on to the doorframe. Perhaps that had been what crunched. He gave up not half a minute later, exhausted, and leaned on the wall, trying to catch his breath. His heart never stopped racing since he had entered the cabin, more than half an hour ago.
Elthe was still unconscious. She looked peaceful, like she was fast asleep. He didn’t want to wake her up. What was he going to do? How was he to persuade her, after what had just happened, to join him, instead of reporting him? Elthe was a crusader. Her whole life had been a quest for providing freedom and justice to people in unfair positions. What were the chances he could change her mind about Sovereign? She would fight to her last breath before she would agree to serve Them in secret. Like she had told him already, she would rather die.
Bring her to us.
To have her mind wiped?
To have her attitude adjusted.
With a groan, Saren pushed himself upright and stepped closer to the bed. He knew what it meant to have one’s attitude adjusted. He had seen it during experiments with captives on Virmire. Hardly more self-aware than the husks the Reaper could raise from the dead, they either attacked anything that moved in the ultimate parody of paranoia or obeyed such simple orders they could still understand like mindless drones. He wouldn’t wish it upon anyone, least of all a friend.
A friend who had tried to kill him. A friend who was most certainly going to try it again when she woke up.
If she woke up.
Her breathing was too shallow to see. He held a trembling finger under her nose until a reluctant breath moistened it. Perhaps if he left her like this, she would just expire on her own. It was hard to tell what kind of damage his retaliation had caused. A concussion, most likely. An aggravation of her exiting injuries, also likely. He felt the pulse on her neck. Her heartbeat was erratic.
And so was Saren’s, as he picked up a discarded pillow from the side of the bed.
She moved when he lifted the hand from her neck, but he didn’t wait to see if she would wake. Judging by the lack of resistance when he covered her face with the pillow, she had not. The struggle of her body for air was passive and weak.
But it lasted a long time. Long enough to consider and reconsider what he was doing and where it would leave him, to account for everything that he had gained, and everything that he would lose. Tears dripped from his unblinking eyes and struck the pillow like the first fat drops of rain after a long drought, but he felt nothing. A vast numbness overcame him, a charred waste where nothing grew, and the only ray of light in it came from knowing that he could end his own life too.
With something comparable to a scoff, the last vestiges of Sovereign’s presence spirited out of his consciousness.