Confrontation

CHAPTER 21 OF THINKER TRAITOR SOLDIER SPECTRE

Saren brooded for a long time, sitting in the cockpit and listening to the slow, heavy beating of his heart. His omni-tool was laid out on the idle navigation panel, a wire to connect it to system VI dangling loose next to it. The salarian research data that Okeer had stolen from Sur’Kesh was still there.

He had reported to the Council right after extraction, of course. As far as they were concerned, it had been another mission successful. Access to the data had been restored, preventing years of research and investments from going to waste. With his ship and his omni-tool destroyed, Okeer could not have smuggled a copy of it on his person. Saren had scans to prove it, and the STG were quite confident that not a byte of it had escaped their extranet siege of Invictus. Any copies Okeer might have secured before Saren had become officially involved were their responsibility, not his. Nobody seemed concerned that Okeer had not been brought to justice.

“It’s of no consequence,” Sparatus had told Saren in private. “He’s a wanted man and if we ever hear of him again he’ll be a dead man. Don’t worry about it. It won’t reflect badly on your record.”

Saren had thanked him, doing his best impression of a man who cared about his record.

He cared about loose ends, however. Not that Okeer was an especially dangerous loose end. What could he do? Point a finger at Saren and say, he made me do it? Nobody would ever believe him and there was not a shred of proof. Still, it made him uneasy. He had made many enemies over his years in service of the Council. Someone with the right mindset and enough resources, like that slimy human, Jack Harper, could, in theory, use Okeer against him. But it was far more likely that they would instead use Okeer to forward their own agenda.

No matter how he turned it, though, he couldn’t find it in himself to regret allowing Okeer to leave with his life, and whatever he had learned from the stolen research. If it had been anyone else at the end of that woman’s targeting laser, he would not have hesitated to shoot Okeer. But when it came to it, he couldn’t let Kryik die.

Saren looked at the omni-tool splayed on the dark console. He had paged through some of the data, but it was too specialized for him to parse. He would need to hire a specialist in krogan genetics to study it. Preferably not a salarian. Perhaps he should’ve offered Okeer a permanent position. The old krogan had outsmarted him at every turn of the road. Saren had only prevailed in the end because the nanites had somehow upgraded his biotic abilities beyond anyone’s expectations.

And against his will.

“Patch me through to Sovereign,” he addressed the VI in a haggard voice. “Text only, encrypted.”

“Establishing comm buoy connection… connection established. Light-time latency: five point sixty-three seconds.”

Saren leaned forward and brought up the haptic keyboard. He hesitated. One last time, he considered deleting the data. Lying to Sovereign that he had failed. Looking for a way to extricate himself from this madness and live the rest of his life, or the rest of this cycle—whichever lasted shorter—like all other mortals. Pretending he didn’t know. Pretending he didn’t care.

He shuddered and shook his head. He couldn’t. He had to try. He owed it to Desolas.

“I have the data.”

Five seconds later, came the reply. “GIVE IT TO US”

Saren nodded and connected the omni. He made the selection on the diagnostic panel with a shaking hand. This was the first act in his service of Sovereign that constituted definite, unmitigated treason against the Council. The internal friction was greater than he had expected. It made him sweat. His pulse drummed in his ears.

“Send selected files over the open connection.”

“Files sent.”

A weight rolled off his shoulders—the weight of a part of him that had just died—leaving a cavity behind. Familiar and horrifying, the sense of disembodiment, a hollowness worse than death, threatened to overwhelm him.

Fortunately, it didn’t take Them too long to respond. “ANALYSIS COMPLETE”

Saren waited, but nothing else came through. “And?” he typed. “Can it be done?”

“ESTIMATED FEASIBILITY: 87%”

“How soon?”

“ESTIMATED TIME REQUIRED: 7 STANDARD YEARS”

“We’ll move faster once the base on Virmire is complete.” As if They needed encouragement. Sometimes Saren forgot who he was speaking to.

“ACCOUNTED FOR”

Of course.

“Am I needed there?” He held his breath.

“NO”

He exhaled. His palms were moist and he wiped them on his trousers. He had been obsessing over his next question since the night of the fever, yet he still didn’t know how to put it. After starting to type, clearing the input and starting over again half a dozen times, he sat back and fought panic.

“Comm buoy connection will be terminated due to inactivity in thirty seconds,” the VI warned him.

He growled, went back to the keyboard and just blurted it out. “When did you inject me with nanites?”

There was a long pause. Longer than what had taken Them to analyze decades of salarian research.

“FIRST CONTACT”

Saren’s mind raced as his gut twisted. It had been five years since his first visit to the Reaper.

“Do they—” He gulped the air like a man drowning. “—effect indoctrination?”

“IF INSTRUCTED”

“Have you—” he started to type, but another message came in, unprompted.

“YOU ARE INTACT”

The hell I am, Saren thought, remembering the diodes under his arm. He had found more, later. On his neck. In his groin. He had popped them all and they had not regrown. But they might. At any time. He felt sick.

“Can they be disabled?”

“YES”

That was something. A feeble ray of hope.

“Remotely?”

“YES”

“Disable them now.”

“WHY”

“Because it’s not what we agreed upon!”

“THEY WERE THERE BEFORE THE AGREEMENT”

Saren stood up and started pacing behind the pilot chair. The space allowed for three steps in one direction. He wanted to punch something. He wanted to kill someone.

“Comm buoy connection will be terminated due to inactivity in thirty seconds,” the VI repeated.

“To hell with it!”

After a few more turns, he returned to the seat. His stomach was in a knot. His neck trembled and his eyes stung.

“I agreed to serve. Not to be a mindless tool. If you don’t disable them, I will kill myself and you’ll have to find another agent.”

He regretted typing it as soon as it went into the ether. Empty words. Would he really kill himself? Could he? He didn’t think he could. He was in his prime, the best of the best, destined for greatness and feeling more confident than ever. Like Kryik had said, people survived, and thrived, despite all sorts of trauma. There were worse fates than being mistreated by a machine god. Besides, suicide would only be a different manner of escape. Even if he was being manipulated, it was his duty to endure it. For the greater good.

He remembered Baratus and shook his head. No, old friend. Putting a bullet in your brain is not what that man you wish you were would have done. That man would have defended his beliefs. On that first evening, in that empty conference room—when I was off-balance, blinded by emotion—he would have killed me instead.

“OTHERS WILL FAIL WHERE YOU MAY SUCCEED”

He drew a shuddery breath. “Honor my wish, then, and disable them.”

“YOU WOULD LOSE THE AUGMENTATIONS. IT IS NOT ADVISED”

Saren sat back again. Somehow, this had not occurred to him. The augmentations were… useful, to say the least. Now that it came to it, he didn’t feel like parting with them. But were they worth the risk? The old conundrum, of whether Sovereign could be trusted or not, was as difficult as ever. If They told lies, then the nanites had likely been eating away at his psychological autonomy for years, in which case whatever decision he made was the decision They wanted him to make anyway. And if They told the truth, he would indeed be ill-advised to refuse the magnificent gift of power he had been given.

“Explain what caused them to activate now, when they haven’t in all these years.”

“IMMINENT TERMINATION OF BIOLOGICAL FUNCTIONS”

Ah. When his heart had stopped that day, Kryik and his men were there to resuscitate him but Sovereign had no way of knowing it. And so They acted. To save his life.

His excitement suddenly wilted, leaving him drained. Again he struggled to find words, and again, he needed the time-out warning to force his fingers.

“I don’t want further augmentations or any cybernetics growing in or on my body without my explicit and informed consent.”

“WE AGREE”

Saren nodded. Now that he could frame it as his own decision, it no longer seemed so sickening. And They had considered his request, which was more than he could have hoped for.

After the connection timed-out, he erased the logs, leaned back and closed his eyes. He fantasized about taking tests to measure his augmented biotic abilities. Lifting and pushing heavy objects could only tell him so much. He was still in touch with his first biotics instructor, Elethea. She had both the experience and the equipment for it. But of course he could never go to her with this. She would not be fooled as easily as Kryik.

Perhaps he could have additional amplifiers installed in the way of cover? A promising strategy in the long term. For now, though, the full extent of his power would be another secret for him to keep.


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