Chapter 3 of The Precedent
Nihlus almost had an out of body experience watching Saren approach with the kid.
He walked at his fastest pace, taking long strides and his long black robes—the same attire he had worn to the embassy reception last night, a lifetime ago—billowed behind him like smoke from a raging fire. The large bag strapped over his shoulder bounced off his hip. In the cold Citadel morning light, his face seemed even paler and harsher than usual, grim and tired, with browplates set low and murder in his eyes.
The kid looked impossibly small and frail next to him. Even running, she could barely keep up. With one tiny hand she gripped Saren’s index talon, and with the other, some vaguely familiar, pointed object that looked like anything but a child’s toy. Her eyes, dark and huge on her little face, hungrily drank in the surroundings, staring everywhere, at everything, the people, the ships, the terminals and benches, like she had never been in a starport before.
“You’re late,” Nihlus said through clenched mandibles when they were within hearing distance.
Saren appraised him, crest to toes, undoubtedly looking for the bloodstains Nihlus had diligently removed from his armor for the kid’s sake. “Has anyone seen you carry her?” He turned around to eye Nihlus’s ship, the Othrys, docked about two hundred meters away, and the security cameras along the path to where they stood, in front of the Virial’s airlock.
“No. I wrapped her in a blanket. Her face was covered.”
“Here.” Nihlus tossed him the fake prothean artifact. “I didn’t need it.”
Saren caught it and pocketed it at the speed of light, then glared at Nihlus for treating the best the Council’s credits could buy so recklessly. Nihlus glared back. If the Council’s credits meant so much to him, he could at least say thanks.
They stood there. Saren wore his stone-face, obviously determined to make this as difficult as possible. After a while, Nihlus gave up and instead took a closer look at the kid, who still stared about like a victim of an alien abduction. He thought he recognized the “toy”.
“Is that what I think it is?”
Nihlus snorted. “Aren’t you going to introduce us?”
With a grunt of annoyance in his subvocals, Saren crouched. “Nihlus, this is Eleni.”
Nihlus crouched too, so he could look the girl in the eyes. He gave her the best smile he could muster. “Hello.”
“Eleni, this is my friend, Nihlus. You must listen to him and do what he says, alright? The same as if it were me.”
The girl said nothing, nor gave any indication that she had registered being spoken to. She was still looking around anxiously, never quite making eye contact. In fact, Nihlus now wondered if she could see and hear at all. In answer to his quizzical look, Saren just sighed and shook his head.
“I guess I know why you’re late,” Nihlus muttered, getting up.
“Yes.” Saren stood as well and leaned closer for privacy. “I don’t know what to do with her. We can’t leave her alone.”
“We won’t, then.”
“Saren, there’s no time. Kids are tough—she’ll get over it. Come on.”
Obviously unconvinced, Saren nodded reluctantly and they stepped through the airlock.
“Good idea,” Saren said, approaching the hoverbed Nihlus had set up in the middle of the commons. Elethea lay on it, unconscious. “More space here.”
“I gave her more medigel on the way. Half the full dose. And one full dose on Cyone. Look.” Suddenly nervous, Nihlus wiped his hands on the cold plate of his leg armor before lifting the blanket to uncover Elethea’s left side. She was in underwear. He had stripped off her light armor, which had already been in shreds when he found her. Her stomach was distended, and the swelling was ominously bruised. He glanced at the girl. She was looking towards her mother, but the bed hovered above turian waist-height, so she couldn’t see the extent of her injuries. Thank Spirits for small favors.
Saren had put down the bag and now he took off his robe too. He started circling the hoverbed, holding up his omni to take a full medical scan. Nihlus had already taken one, and sent it during the call, but he trusted Saren had good reasons to redo it. Better hardware, more recent software. Nihlus was more of a weapons and armor kind of guy; Saren liked the gadgets.
“Was she awake when you found her?”
“Only briefly. She spoke gibberish, like in a fever. Wouldn’t surprise me. They kept her in some rank cell, deep inside the ruins. Dark and damp and cold. Looked like she’d been there a while.”
Saren’s mandibles pressed closer, but he didn’t volunteer any information on when they had lost contact, or how long she had been undercover. Nihlus took the silence as an invitation to continue his report.
“The place was guarded heavily, but not too intelligently. Like they were expecting a frontal assault.” He suspected either Elethea or Saren, or both, had had a hand in that, but he knew better than to ask. “I found a disused tunnel that goes practically right under the cell block, starting two kilometers outside the camp. Only guarded at the entry point.” He shook his head, remembering. “I hate fighting biotics. But it was the first and the last fighting I had to do. Well, other than the bots inside the prison. They looked a bit like Eclipse assets.” He paused, hoping for an explanation or at least some speculation from Saren, but he didn’t bite.
“If it was that easy,” he said instead, “why did it take so long?”
Nihlus coughed. “Easy? I didn’t say it was easy. I’ll admit it was easier than it would’ve been if I didn’t have her locator frequency. But that tunnel? It was flooded with foul water. Chest-deep, in some places neck-deep.” He shuddered, reliving the fresh memory. “I had to dig through three cave-ins—in chest-deep water—and later build a raft for Elethea, so she wouldn’t freeze to death. Because her armor was anything but airtight. Oh, and she was unconscious. In case you forgot.”
“Sometimes,” Saren said calmly, still focused on the scan or whatever the hell he was looking at on his omni, “a frontal assault is faster.”
That stung. “Really, Saren? You’re going to give me shit—”
“Shit!” the girl echoed in a shrill voice, making them both jump. Nihlus had all but forgotten about her. She was still at the spot where Saren had deposited her, repeatedly turning the thresher toy about its long axis and staring at it with hooded eyes. Looking up at Saren, Nihlus made an oops, my bad face. Predictably, Saren shook his head with inexhaustible disapproval.
“You should be thanking me, is what I’m saying,” Nihlus went on lamely. “Instead of criticizing me for taking the safest route, for once. You made me promise, remember?”
“Relax, Nihlus. I wasn’t serious.”
“Oh.” Lame, lame, lame is my middle name.
“Come see this.”
The medical scan on Saren’s omni was indeed much more detailed than the one Nihlus had taken earlier. He frowned at the outlines of Elethea’s anatomy. Alien, yet familiar enough, and equally difficult to decipher as his own when he was forced to treat injuries in the field. As close as he could tell, the internal bleeding was caused by a spleen rupture. Seen often enough after biotic trauma: getting lifted and dropped, slammed against walls, charged into—that sort of thing. Of course, it was entirely possible to cause it with the usual kind of beating too.
“Yeah?” he said, unsure what Saren wanted him to say or do.
“The medigel practically stopped the bleeding. There’s just a trickle left. See?” He pointed at a particularly bright clump under her heart. “Another dose, in a few hours, should take care of it.”
“But what of the blood she’s lost already? That bruise—”
“The swelling and bruising are from the trauma, not from the bleeding. Two cracked ribs,” he pointed at the scan, “there, and there. But they’re healing already.”
“But she was incoherent when I found her. Blood loss—”
“It’s not that dramatic. Look at her cell counts.”
Nihlus looked. The panel was mostly green, with a few items in the yellow, but none were orange or red. “Huh. So, uh… you’re saying I panicked? She was never in danger?”
“I wouldn’t go that far. Without the medigel, she’d probably be dead.”
“Dead!” the girl exclaimed, gaze still fixed on the toy. She was turning it faster and faster.
“Yes, Eleni,” Saren replied, thwarting Nihlus’s plan to mirror the disapproving gesture at him as soon as their eyes met. “Your mother would be dead if not for Nihlus. He saved her from the bad people who took her. We should thank him.” He looked straight at Nihlus and spoke, as far as it was possible to tell, with perfect candor. “Thank you, Nihlus.”
“Thank you, Nihlus,” the girl repeated, mimicking not just the words, but the tone and the cadence too. She didn’t look up, though, nor paused her strange, dizzying game.
Nihlus stared at one, then the other, completely thrown off. “You’re welcome.”
A loud bang made him jump. Shots fired? No, something heavy had fallen on the bare metal floor. He blinked the sleep out of his sticky eyes in time to see Saren hurry toward the hoverbed. The girl was already there, clinging to the side on the tips of her toes. A muted extranet report from the batarian capital ran on the projector, showing scenes of violence in the streets as the growingly organized protestors engaged the police in a bloody melee. And there was the thresher toy, rolling on the floor in front of the projector. Of course. It had the consistency of solid rock.
“She’s waking,” Saren said.
Nihlus glanced at his omni. Wow. His “quick nap” turned into nearly two hours of sound sleep. He hadn’t noticed the exhaustion creeping up on him until it knocked him flat out. Typical.
Approaching the hoverbed, he saw that Elethea’s eyes were still shut.
“She’s awake,” Eleni said, never taking her eyes off her mother, but apparently addressing Nihlus. “You can tell from her breathing. And from her eye movement.”
So, she could speak after all. Nihlus raised his browplates and glanced at Saren, but he seemed equally puzzled. Following the voice, Elethea’s hand slowly felt its way to the top of Eleni’s head, and a smile lifted her cheeks.
Saren crouched and spoke to the kid. “I will lift you on the bed. But you need to stay still. Your mother was hurt and she’s not well yet. Do you understand?”
Elethea muttered something that sounded like… go to the same time? Nihlus frowned. Busy setting the girl up on her mother’s good side, Saren hadn’t noticed. The mother and daughter, finally together again, hugged. Tears streamed down Elethea’s cheeks. “Looking for a bottle, with a moose,” she said.
Now Saren frowned too. “Are you thirsty?”
Elethea shook her head weakly. Her arm trembled from the effort to keep her girl in a tight embrace. It would take a while for the effects of medigel to clear completely.
She shook her head again. “A magazine of a man on the floor.”
“Translator malfunction?” Nihlus suggested, scratching the back of his neck. “It was the same when I picked her up.”
Hearing a stranger’s voice, Elethea labored to open her eyes and look around. She licked her parched lips. “I don’t want to be a good idea.”
“We can’t understand you,” Saren said. “Your translator might be broken. No, no—don’t get upset,” he hurried to add when she abruptly tried to sit up, eyes suddenly round and frightened, unknown surroundings registering at last and memories starting to return in untidy chunks. Nihlus knew what it was like. He’d been there more times than he cared to recount. “You’re safe. We’re on my ship, orbiting the Citadel. Whatever’s wrong, we’ll fix it. Calm down.” He put a hand on her covered knee and gave it a gentle squeeze. Nihlus felt odd, seeing it. He had never seen Saren extend that kind of gesture to anyone else. But then, he had never seen Saren in the company of another truly close friend. Benezia didn’t count.
“I steal through the omnigel,” Elethea said. From the sound and rhythm, that could’ve been for, I’m still groggy. But it could’ve also been, don’t worry about me, or an infinity of other things. Noticing their bafflement, she shook her head, then nodded to indicate she understood.
“This is Nihlus,” Saren continued, pointing with his chin. “He was the one to rescue you from Cyone.”
Elethea looked at him, smiled, and more tears tumbled out of her eyes. “A bit in the water now.”
He smiled back. That was almost certainly a thank you, but he didn’t want to confuse her by replying to it directly. “It’s good to finally meet you,” he said instead. “I wish it was under better circumstances, but—”
She nodded, extending a hand toward him.
“I don’t think—” Saren said, but it was too late. Nihlus had already stepped closer to the hoverbed and touched Elethea’s cold, sweaty palm. And immediately staggered back, as if something had punched him in the chest.
It happened sometimes, though it was by no means common, and he had only experienced it once or twice before. When feverish, drugged or deeply distressed, asari could lose full control over their telepathic abilities and initiate a meld inadvertently. If one could even call it a meld. In a flash, Nihlus saw some scrambled images from her recent memory: the dungeon where she had been kept, masked jailors looming over her, her crumpled little reflection in the visor of his own helmet. But it wasn’t that which shocked him. It was the sense of a dreadful, unspeakable violation.
Covering his mouth with the back of his hand, he stumbled out of the commons, down the stairs, and into the little bathroom, where he dry-heaved over the toilet while tears blurred his vision. Elethea’s confused utterances and Eleni’s high-pitched protests, contesting with the rumble of Saren’s voice, barely reached him, as if he were submerged under water. His head pounded with the heavy beats of his heart. What the fuck? What the flying fuck?
“What happened?” Saren said, echoing his own thoughts. He stood at the door, then knelt on the tiled floor and laid his hands on Nihlus’s shuddering shoulders. “What’s wrong?
Nihlus couldn’t speak. He could barely keep from erupting in all-out sobs as wild shivers shook his whole body. A regular scene from their early days that hadn’t reoccurred in so many years now he’d all but forgotten how often he used to be like this. Triggered somehow by safety rather than peril, tenderness rather than brutality, he’d fall apart after almost every encounter. And Saren would hold him, silent and patient, never questioning, never judging. He’d rock him from side to side—just like this—until the trembling stopped, and his body was his again, spirit freed from the grip of nameless fears.
“It’s not a translator glitch,” he finally managed to say.