Chapter 10 of The Precedent
Saren woke to a nauseating headache. His eyelids were heavy as if shot with lead and it took him a while to lift them. He was back in the cabin. In the very center of the crime scene, in fact. Realizing he was on that same bed, lying on that pillow, he tried to crawl away, but his limbs lacked the strength and all he did was shuffle among the sheets.
“Calm down,” Nihlus said. “You’re alright.”
He was there, of course. Sitting on the chair with his feet propped on the desk. He was always there, for better or for worse.
Saren looked up to meet his gaze and found it accusatory instead of concerned. Had he discovered something? Some clue Saren had failed to consider in shock and grief? The sudden fear made his heart race. His chest ached and his head pounded in protest. Silently, he sank back into the pillow and closed his eyes again.
“What did you do with Elthe,” he whispered.
“I took her to the hangar. Don’t worry. I changed the sheets.”
Saren tried to nod in gratitude, but every move was pain.
“How do you feel?”
“Mhm. Anything else?”
With a great effort, Saren cracked his eyes open once more. He planned to say nothing, admit nothing. But something about the intensity of Nihlus’s stare and the predatory focus of his expression changed his mind. “Chest pain,” he confessed.
“Ah,” Nihlus said, swinging his legs down. He planted his elbows on his knees and leaned closer. “And how long have you been feeling this chest pain, exactly?”
Saren looked around in an earnest attempt to remember. It had probably been more than a year since he felt it the first time, and it reoccurred on a seemingly random basis, say, once or twice a month. He had paid it no heed till recently. It had been visiting him at least weekly in the three months since Elthe had gone under cover. And daily since her emergency locator had started emitting.
But all he said was, “A while.” Just thinking about the breath he’d need to voice all those words exhausted him.
“And you figured the best thing to do about it is nothing,” Nihlus said. “Right? You didn’t say anything to anyone, not even your physician on Virmire.”
It wasn’t a question and Saren didn’t answer.
“I’ll take that as a yes. I’ll also venture to guess it didn’t occur to you to even give yourself a one-over with your fancy med scanner. Because, brilliant as you are otherwise, you have some brain damage that prevents you from understanding that you can, in fact, get fucking sick and eventually fucking die.”
“We all eventually die.”
“Don’t give me that shit. If I gave you that shit back in the commons, you’d have punched me in the face.”
That was true. Saren had been close to doing it even without the aid of dime-a-dozen philosophy. He tried for a deeper inhale, but it felt like being stabbed. Which reminded him. He hazarded a glance down his person at the cost of a sickening rise in the intensity of the headache. His clothes had been torn to reveal his chest and stomach.
“Oh, yeah,” Nihlus said. “I know all about your secret wound too.”
Panic, watered-down by the medication, made Saren dizzy. He hadn’t foreseen the need to explain the stab wound and coming up with something convincing in his present state would be next to impossible.
But then Nihlus got up and started pacing heatedly, the whole of two paces he could make in either direction. “I don’t care if it’s days old,” he was saying. “You should’ve told me. Before last night.”
Days? Saren struggled to catch up. Could medigel have caused the injury to appear so much older than it was? Or was it the nanites? Nihlus’s eyes flashed at him with a fury so palpable it almost registered as an actual whiplash, but Saren was relieved. Anger was far better than suspicion.
“I can’t believe that after all these years—after all the talks about safety—you’d keep something like that from me. What if I hurt you, huh? Did you stop to think about how that would make me feel? Do you ever think about anything but yourself and your own needs? Pushing the limits is one thing but this—” He stopped in his tracks, covered his mouth with a hand, then swiped it upwards, perhaps to shield his eyes from the offending sight of Saren lying helpless in a sickbed. He didn’t finish his thought.
After a while, Saren swallowed, trying to moisten his dry throat. “Did I have an infarction?”
“Yes.” The hand dropped despondently. “A small one, I was told. There should be no long-lasting consequences unless you run off to combat or some other idiocy without taking a few weeks of down-time. But yes, Saren. You had a heart attack. And if I didn’t happen to be there, you’d probably be dead.”
I’d probably be better off. “Told by who?” he said aloud.
Saren’s thoughts followed sluggishly. There would be no consequences, period. The nanites would rebuild anything that was damaged. Why they hadn’t done anything to prevent the escalation of the illness was a question for another day. Perhaps they had even caused it, inadvertently. Who knew what experiments Sovereign had them do in the name of improving Saren’s physical and biotic prowess?
Droyas knew all this. What lies had he spun for Nihlus? Saren didn’t like it when others did the lying for him. It was a fine craft that he had been honing since Shanxi and no one else could be trusted to perform it at his standard of excellence. The only way to keep your lies consistent was to keep them as close to the truth as possible. The more fantastic some fiction, the more likely you were to slip up and forget a key detail.
As if in answer to his muddled musings, Nihlus laughed, incongruously. “He also told me that it was just a question of when something like this would happen. That you’ve been pushing yourself too hard with all the new implants and whatnot. That your stress levels are off the chart on a good day. That he warned you more than once. Your fat krogan doctor had to tell me all that, because, when I ask how you’re doing, you say— Same as always.” He deadpanned and deepened his voice in a caricature of Saren’s. “I’m fine, Nihlus. Just a headache. And Nihlus, the idiot, believes you. Spirits!”
When Saren said nothing in his defense, Nihlus deflated and sat down again. “I didn’t know who else to call. See, even though I feared you might die, I didn’t take you to a hospital, because you made me swear it. I always wondered if I’d be able to let you die just to keep my damn word. I guess I know now.” He laughed again, but his subvocals were those of anguish. “Would’ve made one hell of an irony. For you both to die on the same day from some trivial shit that any half-competent medic could fix in a minute.”
A minute of silence passed, and Nihlus leaned forward so he could support his head with his arms, like it was some great burden. Nihlus, Nihlus. If only you knew. “I’d have taken you to Virmire,” he said in the end. “If not for Eleni.”
Sharp pain coursed through Saren at the mention of the name. He must’ve made some noise because it made Nihlus look up. “I know it’s not the best time to talk about this. But she can’t stay with Sha’ira much longer. I’ll have to go pick her up soon. And you’ll have to figure out what to do with her… later.”
“Yeah. Probably for the best.” Nihlus nodded, but his mandibles twitched nervously. “Do you uh… want her to see the uh… body?”
Saren closed his eyes, suffering another wave of pain and nausea. Inevitably, he thought of his own mother and her premature demise. He had been small enough for everyone to assume he didn’t know what death was. Eleni was older, and despite a relatively sheltered existence, had witnessed it before. He had planned to incinerate the body and leave no trace of it, but perhaps he didn’t have to. Perhaps a funeral would help the child make sense of her mother’s sudden disappearance.
“I don’t know,” he whispered. As Benezia had so eloquently put it, he was unfit to decide what was good for a captive pyjack, let alone a little girl. “What do you think?”
“We could convert a torpedo shell into a coffin. Fly somewhere nice, shoot her into space. Do you think she’d like that? Elethea, I mean. Or was she more of a monument type?”
“Eleni will be her monument.” And as Saren vowed, behind his closed lids and in the tense stillness of his sedated mind, that he would do right by her, that he would set aside the funds and make the connections and do whatever else it took to ensure she could one day stand tall and proud and be recognized, he remembered. In the end, when all barriers within the meld had been demolished and Elthe had glimpsed his most vigilantly guarded secrets, so too had he glimpsed some of hers.
His gasp turned into a pained whimper and Nihlus was momentarily on his feet, hovering above him, eyes wide with alarm. “What is it? What’s wrong? Are you ok?”
“Nothing,” Saren croaked, willing his hand, which had involuntarily crumpled the sheets on his chest in a deathly grip to contain the shock, relax again by his side. “I’m fine.”
“Spirits, Saren, don’t do this to me.” Nihlus caressed his crest, his mandibles, his collar, then rested his head on Saren’s forehead, whispering through heavy breaths. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry I got mad. I’m an ass, ok? But you scared the shit out of me. Please, promise me that you’ll say something if you feel ill again. Just for a couple weeks, till you’re back to normal. Please? I’ll cancel all my stuff, take a leave, stay here and help you with the kid. Ok? Or leave you alone if that’s what you prefer. I’ll do whatever you want, just please—”
“Shut up,” Saren said, but in truth, he felt like crying. It was the drugs, more drugs, who knows what Nihlus had given him? He hated drugs, but he was grateful, and he hated that too, because he didn’t deserve it. He didn’t deserve the help and he didn’t deserve the concern and he sure as hell didn’t deserve the love. Yet he held on to the back of Nihlus’s head with the despair of a man hanging over a precipice. “I promise.”
A couple hours later, he stood on the dock in front of the Virial’s airlock, waiting. The starport seemed busier than usual. He had read somewhere that it housed between fifteen and twenty thousand passengers at any time of day and it felt like fully half of them were looking at him. Even after years of practice in hiding his crimes, he still mistrusted his own face and voice to stand to scrutiny unless he arranged and controlled every twitch, word and thought. And his grip was slippery. Hazy from the medication and exhausted, physically and emotionally, into a near-catatonic stupor, he felt like a drunk struggling to walk a distant and blurry line.
A kind of stage-fright gripped him briefly when he spotted Nihlus in the crowd. Handsome, tall and athletic, he was as much of a pleasure to observe from afar as he was to consume with all senses from up close. At this distance, Saren couldn’t make out the network of fine cracks and lines on his carapace even at maximum magnification, nor discern the nameless sadness that often dimmed his eyes of late; he seemed as young and vital and irresistibly naïve as he had been eight years ago when they had started on this strange path of doomed intimacy.
Saren tiredly wondered if he would one day be forced to murder and bury Nihlus too, and if he could live with that, as he was obviously able to live with what he had done to Elthe. If being alive was the same as living. He was certainly not the same man he had been yesterday. That man had died from a stab that stopped his heart. Someone different survived. Someone lesser.
Minutes passed before he caught sight of the girl too. She clung to Nihlus’s ungloved talon, staring around with the same unfocused, seemingly uncomprehending wonder. A small rucksack hung from her shoulders that Saren didn’t remember bringing from Thessia. Perhaps Nihlus had bought it, or Sha’ira. Perhaps the thresher toy was in it. She had taken it along in the morning, but it wasn’t in her hand now. She carried a weapon instead: the Elanus debut sidearm of 2173, nicknamed the Wasp. At the time, one of Saren’s favorites. For a moment he froze, thinking that Eleni was going to exact swift justice on him at the spot. But of course, it was just a toy. A good reproduction, at about 1/2 scale and by the way she swung it, likely weighing no more than 1/10 of the original.
Fascinated, Saren stared at it as they approached, and when they finally stopped before him, he couldn’t remember what he was supposed to do or say.
“Probably best to go inside,” Nihlus supplied after a while. “You aren’t supposed to be standing,” he added in an accusatory tone.
“I feel good,” Saren lied.
“Promised!” Eleni chirped. As Nihlus took her through the gate, she turned around and shot Saren with her toy sidearm. “Pew, pew!” Both shots got him in the chest, waking the now familiar ache. He followed gingerly.
Nihlus made him sit on the low couch facing the projector and went as far as to push him back into the cushion when Saren tried to remain upright. “Don’t make me tie you up,” he whispered, and for once, it was neither a joke nor innuendo. He poured the leftover purple juice in a teacup and handed it to Eleni, who took it without objection and downed it all in one go. Perhaps he had threatened to tie her up too.
“Take that off, sweetie,” he said, and Eleni let him help her out of the rucksack.
“Where’s mama?” She ran to the center of the room, where the hoverbed had been set up before.
“We’ll uh… go see her in a minute.” Nihlus looked at Saren and nodded.
“Eleni. Come.” Saren’s voice, eroded from disuse and exhaustion, got her attention. Or perhaps she could detect with some other sense what she couldn’t hear in his subvocals, like that day—yesterday, it had only been yesterday—when she hid from him behind the klixen sculpture. She ran over but slowed down to a halt just out of his reach. With a groan, he sat up and extended a hand in her direction. “Come.”
He was certain that, had it been any hand but his, she would’ve ignored it. But his hand came with her long-time fascination—the smooth, sharpened talons. He wasn’t wearing gloves. Eleni made another step forward and took his index talon with her tiny fingers, feeling its texture and testing the tip.
“I must tell you something important,” he said. They both stared at her fingers at play. “While you were out in the Presidium, your mother suddenly got very ill… and died.” He glanced at her face, but there was no reaction that he could see. She kept rubbing his talon and if her grip tightened, it was by such a small degree that he couldn’t be sure he hadn’t made it up. Suddenly it was no longer so hard to see why the adults had swarmed him with stupid questions after the death of his own mother. If he was anything like Eleni—and there was no doubt about it anymore—he had probably given away even less. “She’s gone,” he went on. “Do you understand?”
“Mama’s gone,” she said. She glanced at his face now, but they could only keep it up for a split second before focusing back on the hands between them. “Like aunt Nerada?”
“Where did they go?”
Saren swallowed. He had asked the same question, and the adults had taken it as further proof that he didn’t understand he would never see his mother again. “I don’t know,” he said. “No one knows what happens when we die. But we’re all bound to learn, one day. When our time comes.”
“Because everyone dies.”
“Precisely.” He looked up at Nihlus, feeling, absurdly, that the child’s repetition of his own argument from before landed it new weight and credence. But Nihlus was staring resolutely upward—a gesture Saren knew to mean he was trying to hold back the tears—and didn’t seem to make the connection.
No tears were spilled by either Saren or the girl. She clung to his talon on the way to the hangar and throughout the firing sequence, asked a few questions that Nihlus probably found shocking from the mouth of a child, and nodded sagely while Saren explained, in all the gory detail, the calculation of the negligible probability that the torpedo shell containing Elthe’s body would hit anything before reaching its target newborn star.
In the days to come, Eleni hid less and spoke more, mostly to interrogate anyone at hand about the weapons in the online catalogs or the reasons all the different aliens in the news used them to kill each other. Nihlus interpreted the change in her behavior as an attempt to forge a bond with Saren now that her mother was no longer there, and warned that such a bond would hardly be in the girl’s best interest unless Saren could commit to maintaining it in the future. As usual, his insight went deeper than it had any right to. It was all too easy to imagine Eleni awaiting messages, calls and visits from Saren with the unwavering devotion of a lonely child, like he had awaited Desolas, until, year by year, the constant disappointment built up into bitterness and resentment.
But what choice did he have? If the solution was pretending to shun the child, it was beyond his ability just as much as pretending to love her. And by making himself scarce, he would only burden Nihlus even more. No. She was Saren’s problem.
Of course, she was no more “his” now than she had been at birth, or even conception. Elthe had meant to keep it a secret he would never learn. Yes, she had lied to him, and if she had asked for his consent, he would not have given it. But it was impossible to hold a grudge now. She had never demanded anything of him, and she never would’ve; she never wanted him to be a part of Eleni’s life. And even had he wanted that, she would’ve been well within her rights to decide against it. It was only logical. His life expectancy was but a fraction of Eleni’s; a tiny one, after accounting for the risks of his calling. And now, once he left her in foster care, he would likely never see her again.
And as their brief time together drew to an end, he came to realize she wasn’t a “problem” either. He enjoyed her silent, self-sufficient company, deep focus and endless patience for his long-winded explanations of such things that interested them both, like ballistics and biotics. He even enjoyed the games of hide-and-seek once he made peace with the fact that she had already been inside every nook and cranny of the ship and re-emerged unharmed. Her sense of perspective and lines of sight was unparalleled, as was her ability to remain motionless and soundless. And discovering new ways to be fooled by a child turned out an unexpected source of delight.
On Thessia, Benezia’s men secured the prothean beacon in one swift strike. For once, she and Saren were of the same mind regarding the prospect of publicizing the finding. More than the artifact itself and the associated archive, unveiling the involvement of the highest echelons of asari government in hiding them would cause a political uproar on a scale unseen in centuries. The attention of the media would only be a hindrance. Sovereign’s interests were far better served by blackmailing Tevos into an unwilling alliance instead.
This decision constituted another betrayal of Elthe, who had been in it from the start for the sake of revealing the truth to the masses. Saren had planned to negotiate with her a brief period of exclusive access to the archive before Benezia maneuvered to appoint Elthe its custodian, garnering the support of late Nerada’s flock. Even that would’ve been difficult. Elthe had been a matron by age, but still a maiden in heart, and she would’ve rebelled against acting covertly, even if she believed it was for the greater good. In a way, Saren was relieved she wasn’t there to object. But such musings only fed the guilt. The guilt he would have to bear for as long as he lived.
Increasingly often, he fantasized of making ‘as long as he lived’ quite a bit shorter. What a relief it would be, to lay down his burdens and responsibilities, forget all the lies and the yet more horrible truths; to lean back, exhale one last time, and let the small nebula of his consciousness expand into nothingness.