Shepard motioned Garrus and Liara into position to cover her charge. She’d been surprised to learn that a turian Spectre had accompanied Matriarch Benezia to Noveria. As Garrus had told her many times, turians didn’t like the cold. She’d expected Saren to send Benezia here alone to do his dirty work. Dirty work, indeed. First geth and killing Nihlus, then the thorian and its creepers, then a krogan slave army, and now rachni. She wondered if his horrors ever ceased or if they were in for something more. He claimed his mind was his own and yet no sane man would ever want to bring back the rachni. It was just further proof of his indoctrination.
Saren stood at a console in the room before them. Two geth flanked him, but they weren’t looking at the doorway. They were looking at the grates on the floor. She almost laughed. It was about time he got to experience the backlash of all the problems he’d caused. His voice cut sharply through the room. He was berating someone for their failure and stupidity. Nice guy. Liara tensed when Benezia’s voice came over the comm. Shepard motioned for her to focus. She pulled it together and then Garrus sent out a chain overload as Liara cast a warp and Shepard charged Saren. The rogue Spectre slammed hard into the terminal, cracking the controls, but recovered quickly and she took an elbow to the face as he spun around to face her. “Shepard, you fool,” he hissed. “They will kill us all.”
“Should have thought about that before you unleashed them on the galaxy again,” she growled as she emptied a shotgun round into his belly while warping him. It wouldn’t kill him, but it would help whittle down his shields. The geth around them were down and she expected the rattle of Garrus’ assault rifle or the crack of Liara’s pistol. It didn’t come. Saren’s metal geth hand cracked her across the face instead and she fell back a step before firing her shotgun again. Where the hell were Garrus and Liara?
“Looks like your friends won’t be joining us,” he said maliciously, stalking toward her. She warped his shields again and heard her barrier hiss as he did the same. “Give it up, human. I am far more powerful than you. I was killing humans better than you when you were a child.”
“That just makes you old,” she retorted, throwing him back. He staggered but didn’t go far. A chill settled around her as she realized that she was outmatched and alone. There was a reason Saren had lived twice the average lifetime of a Spectre and had been so highly regarded by the Council. He warped her barrier again as she shot him—in the face this time—and felt his own slugs slam into her armor. She couldn’t hold her barrier forever and continue her biotic attacks, and the room had almost no cover. To make matters worse, one of the vent grates flew up and she heard the skittering clicks of a rachni. If she broke off from Saren to kill the rachni, he’d take advantage. If she continued to focus on Saren, the damn bug would further wear down her barriers with its acid. She’d rather be shot than deal with an acid burn again. She pivoted and shot the rachni. As she’d expected, a biotic attack took down her barrier. Another vent exploded upward, but this one was behind Saren, so she ignored it. Let him deal with his own creepy, giant, flesh-eating roaches.
When its acid splashed across Saren’s back and splattered her armor, she jumped back. He noticed the widening of her eyes with a feral grin and stepped to the side, letting her take the brunt of the splash. She threw the creature back and shot it until her shotgun overheated. Saren’s fist caught her on the side of the head; however, she saw it coming with time to move just enough that it missed her temple, and rather than being stunned, it was simply painful. She ignored it and jabbed the pressure point between the plating on his wrist that Garrus had shown her once and disarmed him. In response, he wrenched her shotgun away and hit her in the face with it. She felt her nose break. Blood poured down into her mouth. She spat it on him. Maybe he was allergic to levos. The move caught him by surprise just enough that she was able to pistol whip him and was satisfied to hear the long plate on his cheek crack.
His reach didn’t help him this close. Garrus had taught her how to fight a turian in close quarters. Saren wasn’t expecting the blows she rained down on him, but he countered with swift efficiency. In moments, their hands were locked around each other’s throats. She brought her feet up and planted them on his waist before pushing off with her legs and tearing away from his grasp. She felt the metal slice the sides of her neck, but fortunately, they missed the major blood vessels. She rolled and came up in a crouched fighting stance. He shot her with her own damn shotgun. Rage burned through her. She charged, knocking him back before warping him and putting his pistol to his throat. His shields took most of the damage, but it was enough to finally drop them. She fired again as he swept her legs out from under her. She went down with a sharp exhalation of breath. Before she could roll away, he was on her.
She could beat Garrus with ease when sparring, but grappling with a turian was another matter entirely. He outweighed her by at least a hundred pounds and had more than a foot of height on her. She raked her boot down the sensitive hide behind his spur and locked her foot between it and his calf. He snarled as she pushed, trying to break the bone, and twisted her wrist until the bones ground together. Breaking his spur would make walking difficult, if not impossible, but breaking her wrist meant she likely wouldn’t be able to hold her shotgun. However, she didn’t have possession of the shotgun and she could fire a pistol and use her biotics with one hand. She glared up into his eerie blue eyes and kicked as hard as she could. He howled and completed the twist, snapping the delicate bones in her wrist. Her vision swam, but she used her free arm to send a throw field out and tossed him across the room.
Neither of them moved. They sat where they were, huffing for breath. She heard another skitter, but before she could react, he raised her shotgun and shot the creature before it could leave the vent. She let her head fall back against the floor. “You just had to go and bring the rachni back. Because husks and the geth weren’t enough,” she muttered. Alarms cut off his response as the lights abruptly shut off and a red glow filled the room. She cursed, “Damn it. I just fixed the goddamn power!”
Saren shifted and she glared at him. He said, “It would appear we have a problem. I sealed the door against your friends when I heard you begin your charge. The lock requires power to be overridden. There is no power; thus, there is no heat and no way out of here unless you wish to attempt the ventilation system, which likely has thousands of those creatures in it. Can you survive this cold alone?” She knew he couldn’t. His physiology didn’t allow him to produce enough warmth to withstand extreme cold. Turians were designed to expel heat rather than hold it in.
She couldn’t withstand it, either, but she wasn’t going to admit to that. Her armor had heating units, but they’d been active throughout the mission and had cut to backup power while going through the facility. She’d been unconcerned once she had reactivated the power, and with it, the heat. However, she didn’t know how long it would take Garrus and Liara to restore the power, or if they were even out there and able to try. For all she knew, Benezia had gotten to them. Garrus was a strong fighter and Liara a powerful biotic, but the asari hadn’t fought more than the occasional looter or pirate before joining Shepard’s team. She didn’t know if she could handle a group of commandos, especially considering that they were led by her own damn mother. Honestly, she was more worried about them than herself.
Saren took her silence for assent and said, “As much as I loathe the idea of working cooperatively with any human, and especially you, it is not unheard of for enemies to form temporary alliances when faced with situations such as these. Live to fight another day and whatnot.”
“You want to call a truce?” she asked disbelievingly.
“Want? No,” he said. “However, we are currently located within a glacier above which a blizzard is raging. The labs are located here with the power shortage as a failsafe. The cold is enough to kill almost anything that might get loose and that includes both humans and turians. The temperature is already dropping. On our own, we will both be frozen in a matter of hours. What I want is to survive. Your people and mine are aware of our location. One or the other will restore the power and come for us. When that happens, we may resume our altercation.”
“You’ve mentioned that,” she grumbled, remembering his claims on Virmire. “Survival. What good is survival if you’re a slave? Living and surviving are two completely different things.”
“If you do not survive, you have no chance to live again,” he said. “I am trying to save as many people as I can, Shepard. Surely, you of all people can understand that.”
“I do,” she said, sitting up. “But you’re taking the coward’s way out and you’re wrong. Think about it, Saren. I, a human, am looking at the same damn thing you are and calling you craven!”
“What would you have me do, Shepard?” he demanded. “You cannot possibly comprehend their power. They destroyed the Protheans! You would allow them to do the same to us out of your own stubborn pride!”
“No,” she said. “I wouldn’t. If we stand together, if we fight as one, we can beat them or at least die trying with our heads held high. What happened to never seeing a turian’s back until he’s dead? They’re just machines, Saren, and machines can be broken!”
“That is reductive, Shepard,” he sneered.
“I don’t know why I bother,” she huffed. “You won’t listen. You can’t. Sovereign owns you now. It’s in your head, isn’t it? Whispering to you. Telling you what to do. Twisting your thoughts.”
“No!” he protested. “I told you on Virmire. My studies—”
“Oh, come on!” she shouted. “Whatever you may be, you aren’t stupid, Arterius. Your experiments are inherently flawed.”
He narrowed his eyes at her and said, “Explain, human.”
“You were studying the effects of indoctrination on indoctrinated test subjects,” she said. “Sovereign is controlling your test subjects. Therefore, the results will show whatever Sovereign wants them to. If it thinks that reducing their functionality will prove to you that you aren’t indoctrinated because you can still function, then that’s what it’s going to do to them. The entire thing is biased.”
“It wouldn’t do that,” he said.
“Why not?” she asked. “Do you think the ancient sentient machine determined to destroy all life in the galaxy has conceptions of honor or that it can’t lie?”
“It has no reason to do so,” he said. “The Reapers could simply kill us all if they wished. They don’t need us.”
“Then why are they accepting your help?” she countered. “They aren’t based on emotion. They have no mercy or goodwill. You’re even more ruthless than I am. Tell me, Saren. If you were the Reapers, what would you do?”
“Divide and conquer,” he said immediately, rising to replace the grates and drag the geth onto them to prevent any more rachni from entering.
She said, “Exactly. If we’re busy fighting against ourselves, we’re either ignoring the real threat or spread too thin to face it. It simply makes their extermination of us easier. Conservation of energy at work. What use could they possibly have for you once the rest of us are dead? They’ll go back out into dark space and you’ll, what, serve Sovereign? How? How, exactly, does an organic being serve a machine that’s going to be lying in wait for another fifty-thousand years? They don’t need you once they’ve accomplished their goal. What do you do with a slave that’s outlived its use?”
“You’re wrong!” he insisted wildly.
“How? Tell me how I’m wrong,” she said. “Convince me with logic rather than fear or fanaticism, Saren, that joining them will truly save anyone rather than simply prolonging our lives until everyone else is gone. Convince me that our heads won’t be the last on the chopping block, but there all the same. Use that magnificent fucking brain of yours for one damn second and think.”
He began to pace frantically, hobbling on his injured leg. He muttered to himself as if having an argument within his own mind. She watched in fascination as he battled with himself. His talons raked against his fringe and pushed the hood off of his head. They encountered the ports at the back of his neck and he stopped abruptly. Seeming to truly see himself for the first time, he looked down at the geth arm and the port on his leg. When he lifted his cybernetic eyes to her, he said desolately, “We can’t defeat them, Shepard.”
“I thought you were a turian, Arterius,” she challenged.
He looked back down at his arm and said, “So did I.”
“Then what the hell are you going to do about it?” she demanded. “Are you going to fight for your people or are you going to just hand them over to the machines like an offering to a malevolent god?”
“I’m trying to fight for my people,” he insisted.
“No,” she disagreed as her heating unit died with a click. “You’re trying to save yourself. If you’re dead either way, then are you going to die like a turian or like an obsequious volus? All your talk about turian superiority and here you are cowering while a human leads the fight against the thing you fear too much to face.” She shook her head in disgust.
“Enough!” he shouted. “You’re a fool if you don’t fear them.”
“Oh, they terrify me,” she said. “Talking to Sovereign on Virmire made my blood run cold. I’m no fool, Arterius. I just refuse to be a slave to anything, including my own fear. That’s why we have no choice but to fight them. What is the Conduit? Why does Sovereign want you to find it? Why are you here? Are you a turian or a volus, Saren Arterius? Are you a goddamn Spectre or a sniveling cur?”
“The Conduit is a back door onto the Citadel,” he said. Sovereign screamed inside his head.
“Okay,” she drawled. “And that’s useful, how, exactly? The Citadel isn’t exactly difficult to access. Why is that so important?”
“Surely even you cannot be that dense,” he snarled. His tone changed so that he sounded like he was attempting to explain a concept to a child. “What would happen if a fleet of geth ships led by a massive, unidentifiable dreadnought came pouring through the Widow relay?”
“They'd close the arms," she answered as the picture came together in her mind. "So, you need a back door to get your army in and open them because even if you were already there, without an army, they'd just gun you down as soon as you tried. But why is the Citadel important, Saren?” she pressed. It was getting colder and she was beginning to shiver.
He clenched his head in his hands and gnashed his teeth. Each word came as though being ripped from him. “It’s a dormant mass relay leading into dark space. When activated, it will allow the Reapers to flow through into the galaxy to begin their harvest.”
She stared at him in shock for a moment and said, “How do we stop it?”
“You think Sovereign would give me that information?” he snapped. His head felt as though it was being danced on by elcor.
“Where is the Conduit?” she asked.
“Ilos,” he answered and fell to his knees, gripping his head as if trying to keep it from coming apart in his hands.
“Why Ilos?” she asked. “Wasn’t that a Prothean world?” He groaned and bent forward, but didn’t answer. Hesitantly, she went to him and knelt in front of him. “Look at me, Saren,” she ordered. “Hold it together. You can do this.”
He jerked at the touch of her hand on his face, but looked up at her with agony visible even in his cybernetic eyes. He said, “I don’t know. There are ruins…archives. Maybe…maybe there’s a clue there. Shepard, I can’t fight it forever. Sovereign is too strong.”
“How do we get to Ilos?” she asked. “Tell me that and I’ll let you go.”
He gripped her arm above the break in her wrist and said, “Don’t let go. The Mu Relay. Benezia sent me the coordinates. You’ll have to take them from my omni-tool. I can’t…spirits! Don’t let go, Shepard. If you do, I’m lost.” He hated admitting it to her, but he was fighting an internal battle for his sanity and she was the one thing that had stayed constant since all of this began. Her internal surety made him want to believe that, despite being human, she had answers to which he wasn’t privy.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “Give me your arm.”
She activated his omni-tool and sent the relay coordinates to her own. She could see in the way he held himself that he was fighting the urge to rip her throat out for it. No doubt Sovereign was raging at this betrayal. She had to figure out what to do with him when they were free. If she left him, Sovereign would reclaim him and complete his indoctrination. He would pursue her, find the Conduit, and activate the Citadel and she had no idea how to stop him. If she arrested him, he would either be imprisoned while Sovereign ripped his mind to shreds or be killed outright. He was as much a victim as he was a villain, a sad anti-hero trying to do the right thing in the wrong ways. In the end, he was not the one who had committed the atrocities that had been done. He was merely a pawn and he was much more valuable to her alive. If he could convince the Council that the Reaper threat was real, then they stood a greater chance of gaining cooperation between the races. Strategically, he was valuable…if he could fight off the indoctrination.
She said, “The way I see it, you have three options. I can kill you here and make it quick. You can kill yourself and redeem yourself that way. Or you can fight Sovereign and join me.”
He laughed bitterly. “As if anyone would have faith in me now even if I could shake Sovereign’s effects. My credibility is in tatters.”
“I believe you,” she said.
“You are a fool, Shepard,” he replied. “This close, with your defenses down, I could rip your throat out.”
“I don’t think so,” she said, glancing down to the pistol she held against his abdomen.
“I have underestimated you,” he noted. “But you are beginning to shake. The cold will render you defenseless soon.”
She saw that he was correct. The temperature was dropping rapidly now as the frozen walls overcame the last of the stored heat in the room. “You, t-too,” she pointed out. “Which will it be, Saren? Ally or enemy?”
He stared at her for a long moment and then said, “You truly believe that you can defeat them?”
“I believe that I’ll t-try my d-damnedest,” she said as the cold settled into her bones and made her clench her jaw to keep from biting her tongue.
“You’ll sound more convincing when you aren’t about to freeze to death,” he said and, with a long-suffering sigh, began to remove his armor.
“W-w-what are you d-d-doing?” she asked, wrapping her arms around herself and getting up to pace. She needed to move. She was freezing. It was past time to go for the emergency blanket in her armor.
“Shared body heat will keep us alive for longer,” he pointed out. “I put off more heat than you do.”
“B-b-because turians are designed t-t-to release heat, not absorb it. You’re s-signing your own death warrant,” she said. “I’ll leach all of yours away and then what will y-you do?”
He pulled out a thin silver sheet like the one she carried. It wouldn’t be enough in these temperatures if either of them were alone, but their combined heat would hopefully see them through. She wondered where Garrus and Liara were and if they were faring better. She desperately hoped that Benezia hadn’t gotten the better of them. Her train of thought derailed when Saren began to strip his undersuit. She’d seen Garrus in the showers after missions, but after the first time when they’d stared at each other with open curiosity, they didn’t generally look. It wasn’t that turians were unattractive. She just didn’t want to see the guy who was quickly becoming her best friend naked even if all of their bits were hidden away when not in use.
Saren was very different from Garrus. He was taller and leaner. His pale, metallic plates clearly showed the multitude of scars he’d accumulated over the years. Several of them were even lighter than the rest and she wondered why. Though commonly stated to possess an exoskeleton or carapace, the plates on their bodies were more like thick, tough skin than bone or shell. It could be punctured, though not easily, and she knew from patching Garrus up enough times that there were places on their hides that were rough to the touch and others that were surprisingly soft. She doubted that any part of Saren was soft, though. Garrus looked tough even out of his armor. Saren looked lethal. If she’d had any doubt that turians were apex predators, those doubts were thoroughly dispelled upon seeing him in the…hide. He looked even more predatory out of his armor than he did in it. She could easily picture him flying across Palaven in pursuit of prey. When he gave her an expectant look, she felt like she was that prey.
“Your armor is doing little more than transferring the cold to your body,” he said. “Dispose of it.”
She raised an eyebrow and said, “You w-w-want me to get naked? With y-you?”
He huffed and said archly, “Believe me, desire has nothing to do with it, human. Would you prefer to freeze out of a misguided sense of modesty?”
“No,” she said in resignation and began to strip out of her armor while he shook out the emergency blanket. She pulled her own out and wrapped it around her as soon as her underarmor had been removed.
He huffed again and pulled her to him, opening the blankets so that they were pressed up against each other. She stifled a sigh of relief at the glorious heat radiating off of him and attempted to turn around. He stopped her. “Your organs have more bone and muscle to protect them from the back. Your core does not and neither does mine. I hadn’t expected reticence from a human. Your kind tends to be particularly lewd.”
“I’m military. I have no problem being nude around the people I fight alongside,” she said as he sat and pulled her into his lap so that she was straddling him. She was glad to note that his groin plates were tightly closed and had left her underwear on in any case. She wasn’t stripping down that far. “An alien who was trying to kill me less than an hour ago? That’s a different story altogether.”
“I agreed to an alliance when I broke faith with Sovereign,” he said. “I do not tolerate manipulation and that is precisely what indoctrination is.”
“We’ll see,” she said. “I still don’t trust you not to slit my throat.”
He held up his hands and retracted his talons. She hadn’t known he could do that. He gave a frustrated hum and pulled her closer. “Relax, Shepard,” he said. “I have no interest in you as a woman and I won’t kill you now.” He told himself he wasn’t lying about the first and Sovereign demanded that he lie about the latter. The Reaper’s voice felt further away when his focus was on Shepard.