Chapter 31 - The Hunted
Deep within the caverns a lone geth trooper stood watch outside one of the many doorways, its bright photoreceptor filling the narrow darkness with an eerie glow. It had been standing motionless for hours and its synthetic muscles felt no ache, its monocular gaze as chronic as ever. It could feel the presence of over a dozen nearby platforms bolstering its thought processes, freeing up algorithms for higher functions. Their effectiveness was limited by the number of platforms they had lost against the Creator intruders, which the local collective agreed had been too many. If the Creator Zeras'Boa failed in his objective and the geth were again called upon, it was no longer certain that the synthetic's numbers would be sufficient. The two prime units that were currently standing guard with the Creator abruptly broadcast an alert that the second intruder had entered their range. Elimination was anticipated to take place within 27.792 seconds. Exactly 27.267 seconds later, the programs within the prime units fell silent. The geth trooper immediately felt its own intelligence degrade in response to the shrinking of the neural network, finding fewer geth with which to distribute processing power.
Seconds passed before one of the primes logged back into the network, but its presence was again taken away 1.791 seconds later. The programs within the trooper platform waited, but it did not surface again. As the moments passed the remainder of the geth began to debate their next course of action when two outside communications pinged the neural network at almost exactly the same time. The first was from the Creator, another command for the units to rally with him. The second was transmitted on a much higher security level, a classified stream of binary data that was decoded within seconds by the collective. The message was received, opened, comprehended and transmitted to all local platforms within the same amount of time that an organic's Omni-Tool would have taken to alert its user. The only delay, so miniscule it barely registered, was to erase the unnecessary organic wording and pull out the key phrases. Eden Prime taken. Colony obliterated. Beacon retrieved. Nazara demands total unit recall. Quarian expendable. Coordinates 12875.42694.79586. The geth trooper immediately began marching for the nearest exit, simultaneously plotting a course through the ice tunnels that allowed it to enter formation with the rest of the evacuating units. It also quickly closed itself out of the quarian's proxy connection, severing the Creator Zeras'Boa's ability to communicate with the remaining geth. His last command would go unheeded.
Tali'Zorah and Ren'Gerrel wasted no time in abandoning Zeras' impromptu interrogation chamber but when they entered the cave tunnels again, their quarry appeared to be long gone.
"Damn he moves fast." Ren remarked, cautiously examining the corridor before speaking to make sure they weren't under any immediate threat.
"Not many places he can go though," Tali said with a wave of her hand, "I've got the base schematics right here and this tunnel only leads one way."
Ren eyed her Omni-Tool appreciatively. "Nice job, how'd you find those?"
"I managed to make my way to a security terminal after the geth captured you, made it a lot easier to find out where you were being kept."
"The geth didn't find you?" Asked Ren, gesturing for Tali to follow him as they began tracking their prey.
"The primes left as soon as they had you...I tried to go after you but-"
"Don't," warned Ren, "I already know you did the best you could. And you got me out of there eventually, that's what counts."
Tali nodded, feeling as though a subtle weight had been taken off her shoulders. "Well, anyway, I don't think Zeras realised I was still alive until it was too late."
"That's right, he didn't." Said Ren, recalling his captor's surprise, "I think the geth forgot to mention that part to him. Speaking of, you got any idea if we're going to run in to any platforms in here?"
"I'm not sure," Tali admitted, "I've got records of their positions before I left the security hub but I don't know if they'll still be accurate by now."
"Then its eyes and ears from here on out, make sure you keep that shotgun of yours ready."
"Always." Tali replied.
Ren estimated that a tense ten minutes has passed before either of them spoke again.
"Geth up ahead." Tali warned quietly, off to one side in a crouch to cover her friend's blind side as the Lieutenant pressed his back against the corner wall and risked a peek at the next corridor.
"I don't see it."
Tali, her vision limited in order to remain out of sight, re-consulted her Omni-Tool. "I've got one on record, maybe it's moved."
Ren tried another glance and met with the same result. "Any side rooms, passages?"
She examined the schematics. "Nothing."
"And Zeras can't have taken another route?"
"Only to that dead-end storeroom we looked in."
"Then he's probably ordered whatever geth were here to follow him, and any others left across the base besides."
"That could make things difficult." Tali observed.
"Maybe not as much as you think, I got the impression he didn't have that many units left by the time he got hold of me."
"You're probably right," said Tali after a moment's thought, "I don't think there could have been more than a dozen geth left within the compound when I was on the terminal."
"Then he should be running scared, let's hope it makes him slip up."
"I just had to go and say it didn't I?" Observed Ren glumly. He eyed the door in front of him bitterly, shaking his head at the blown out controls. Apparently Zeras was still thinking one step ahead after all.
Despite the severity of the situation, Tali couldn't resist the tease. "Well look on the bright side, it can't get any worse can it?"
"Oh nice, well done. Make it two for two why don't you?"
"Oh calm down and keep me covered will you? This should only take a minute." Tali gently pushed him aside and knelt at the panel, prising the cover off to expose the mess of tangled and melted wiring inside. "Hmm...maybe two."
Ren rolled his eyes and turned to monitor the opposite door they had entered through just a few moments ago. "No offense Tali, but I'm going to enjoy introducing this Bosh'tet to my rifle by the time we're done."
A soft scuffling began behind him as Tali started fighting with the ruined circuitry. "After what he tried to blame you for back there you might have to beat me to it."
Ren's head turned with surprise. "You heard him?"
Tali made an affirmative hum. "That security terminal I hacked? I managed to patch into the audio-visual feeds from the room. I had to break visual when I abandoned it to find you but I kept the sound running."
"Then you know why he did this. How I've nearly gotten you killed more times than I ca-"
"Oh no you don't." Declared Tali, breaking her work to raise a warning finger at him. "You don't get to talk me out of a guilt trip then run off on your own private pity cruise."
The lighter nature of her tone helped lift his own spirits which had been melancholy since his interrogation. Subconsciously wanting to get away from the lingering dark mood, Ren found himself pushing further. "I just...after everything that happened because of me..."
"You're kidding, right? Are you really going to make me go through how nobody's deaths could have been anticipated or stopped, and how the only reason I'm still alive is because of you?"
The smirk that had been playing at the corners of his mouth couldn't be denied any longer. "I suppose we have had that conversation before haven't we?"
"Only last time you were the one giving out the advice. You ever thought about following it yourself for a change?"
"It had crossed my mind." Ren admitted, suppressing a chuckle at the irritated huff from his companion. "You know something Tali, you might make a good leader yourself one day."
"Suuure," she replied sarcastically, "now do me a favour and hold these wires out of the way will you?"
Five minutes later the door split open with a reluctant groan, the fried servos only lasting long enough to create a half-meter gap before grinding to a halt. The two quarians eyed the one-man space warily.
"It was always guns before beauty back on my ship Lieutenant."
"Your Captain never learnt not to get in a woman's way when there's a job to be done?"
"My Captain got tired of women having to do all the work." Tali threw back.
"Ouch." Ren replied in a wounded tone. "That's me properly chastened then." So saying he stepped into the breach, having to turn himself sideways in order to squeeze through. "Right, we're clear, c'mon through."
Tali did so and the two progressed further up the corridor with Tali's Omni-Tool guiding the way. Ren set a blistering pace that his shorter companion found difficult to keep up but she managed it without complaint, pride making her exhale each laboured breath as silently as possible. All the same, she was grateful for the sudden break as Ren drew to a halt a half-mile further along.
"Still no geth." The engineer managed, struggling to control the heavy rise and fall of her chest.
"But we do have another problem." Ren replied, gesturing to an obstacle further ahead.
Tali glanced around him to see that the tunnel ahead forked off into two separate directions. She frowned. "I'll see what the schematics say."
While Tali brought up her Omni-Tool once more, Ren moved ahead to examine the two routes. He pressed a good ten feet into either one but failed to spot any sign of disturbances caused by Zeras' passing. As he doubled back to the fork after examining the second passage, Tali came up to join him, body language alluding to her puzzlement.
"You don't look too confident."
"Is it that obvious?" Replied Tali with no small amount of frustration. "There's no way to tell which route he took, I can tell you where each path leads but as for which direction he might have gone..." She shrugged, then re-thought her words a moment later. "I might be able to find him on the cameras if I double back to the security room but..." She didn't need to finish the thought; they both knew their quarry would be even further ahead by then.
"I think there's an easier way," decided Ren, "those schematics show which way leads to the surface?"
Tali ran through the two routes as quickly as she could. "The right pass should take us there, why?"
"Zeras has got no reason to stick around now, he might want me dead but I don't think he's the type to manage it unless he holds all the cards. He's smart enough to know that too, my guess is he's making a break for the ships, might be thinking to leave us stranded here."
Tali couldn't fault the logic, Ren's estimate matched Zeras' normal behaviour perfectly. "That's Zeras' style," she agreed, following her partner's lead, "I just hope he forgets about our shuttle back across the plains."
"And what do you think the odds of that happening are?"
"Nil." Muttered Tali with a sigh.
"Then we'd better find him before he gets to those dropship's guns." Muttered Ren grimly. "C'mon, double time."
Panting, Zeras'Boa nar Gedda burst free of the oppressive tunnels, throwing up an arm to block the stabbing glare of daylight as he emerged into the outside world. Hazy grey shades came into view as he blinked away the harsh sting of the stark landscape. The geth! As he'd suspected, the synthetics were still on-planet, though from the looks of things they weren't planning on being so for much longer. Small bands of geth troopers and a pair of shock units were in the process of ascending the boarding ramps into the holds of the waiting dropships. The desperate quarian staggered across the snow, shouting for attention from his vassals. They appeared not to hear him, his words snatched away by the frigid winds. Zeras shouted again, his cry cut short as he misjudged his footing and stumbled forward, barely getting his arms out in time to cut short his sudden descent. Now on his knees, Zeras scrabbled frantically at the controls of his Omni-Tool only to be informed yet again that his connection to the geth had been severed remotely. Furious, he dismissed the device with a sharp wave of his hand. "Stop!" He commanded, raising his voice as high as he could over the winds. They heard him, he felt it, but the synthetic traitors didn't so much as pause.
Spitting curses on the turian who'd undoubtedly caused this, Zeras began to get back up to his feet. There was no way he could fight Ren'Gerrel and Tali'Zorah both, but he still had the executive ship he'd stolen from the asari. All he had to do was disable the duo's ship and get off-planet himself. They'd survive a few weeks on the meagre rations he still had left in the hideout, if they were lucky and not even Tali's technical expertise could rig up a long-range communicator with the interference from inside those mountains. Even he had had to use the geth ships as impromptu boosters. Starvation wasn't the death he'd envisioned for the son of Han'Gerrel but Zeras bitterly conceded that he had little choice in the matter now. The objective was Ren's death, he comforted himself, you'll come up with an appropriate way to claim credit later.
Rising to his feet and beginning to move toward his own waiting vessel, Zeras took one more hate-filled glance at the nearest synthetic dropship. It was then that he froze in his tracks, suddenly unable or unwilling to move. There in the midst of the hold, its presence previously hidden behind the now-harnessed geth units, was one of the familiar white orbs that he'd seen so many times aboard those ships. It was a sight he'd become accustomed to and, after some initial curiosity, had always dismissed. Now though Zeras stared, somehow finding it difficult to look away. Had it always appeared to pulse with that indescribable white hue? An ethereal colour that seemed to purify everything it touched; Zeras couldn't understand how he'd not noticed it before. It seemed to be speaking to him, calling him with gentle, soothing whispers at the edge of his hearing that were spoken in a language so beautiful he hardly dared to make a sound for fear of interrupting them. A part of him remembered hearing the whispers before and being grateful when they ceased after the dropships moved off-world; Zeras knew better now, the whispers were clearer, more pure. They had never meant him harm. Tentatively, the quarian took a step closer to the majestic orb.
It was then that the dropship's boarding ramp began to rise out of the snow, scattered flakes dislodging and falling from the lip as it began to seal. In a panic Zeras surged forward, instinctually grasping what was about to happen and desperate to make sure it didn't. He ploughed through the snow, moving with single-minded purpose as the ramp rose ever higher. He was metres away when it sealed with an atmospheric hiss and he flung himself against the plating with a feral cry, beating his fists on the unyielding metal. His eyes had dulled the moment the hatch had risen to block his view of the orb and now even the alluring whispers began to fade away into silence. Horrible, lifeless silence that felt like the very antithesis of the whisper's glory, it threatened to fill his soul with darkness and fear. His pounding slowly stopped, and the exile sank piteously to his knees in the snow, faceplate inches from the defiant ramp's underside.
A swirling maelstrom of emotions began to rage within Zeras'Boa, desires to break down and weep disconsolately faced off against a need to gnash his teeth and strike out in blind rage. In the midst of this some higher part of his brain was screaming at him, perilously trying to warn him that his behaviour wasn't normal, that something was terribly wrong. Zeras seized upon the logical thought, trying desperately to regain control of his faltering emotions. The whispers had done something to him, he understood that much at least, but his mind was struggling to decide whether they had damaged or healed him. Instinct told him that contact with the whispers had allowed him to glimpse a higher form of life far more advanced and majestic than anything else in this galaxy, a life form that he had to see more of, a being he yearned to converse with and comprehend. Then the logical mind fought back, telling him that the whispers should never have been there, that they had been trying to assert some kind of control over him that he should be rejecting.
A gentle hum began to reverberate in the air around him and for a moment Zeras' heart leapt whilst his head cried out in terror, each believing that the whispers had returned. But no, this was much more artificial and he could feel the energy running through his body. Strange blue light seemed to fill the edges of his vision at the same time, and the sensation of heat filled his body. His dulled mind made the connection a moment later. The dropships were igniting their engines, preparing for an ascent into the stars. Strangely, Zeras didn't feel panic. At least, not the way he knew he should have done. The part of him he still recognized as Zeras'Boa nar Gedda was mentally screaming in panic, commanding that he pick himself up and move away before the dropships began to lift off. His other self, the one who was trying to decide if it was ascending to a higher consciousness or not, seemed content to remain, filled with a strange confidence that everything would be alright if he just remained where he was. The voice of self-preservation had joined his logical self however, and together the two voices were slowly winning out. Slowly, Zeras fought for control of his limbs again, drawing himself out of the snow and back into a standing position. As if startled at his attempts his other self surged against his rational mind and the two entities met with such force that Zeras froze in place again, physically unable to move. He knew he had to step away from the ships, and he knew that the further away from the orb he got, the easier it would be to regain control of his body.
With supreme effort Zeras managed to turn himself around, putting the dropships at his back and the caverns once more to his front. He almost blacked out from the exertion, gritting his teeth and squeezing his eyes shut to ward off the pain. He opened his eyes again when he realised that closing them only filled his head with more visions of the orb. He stepped forward reluctantly, aware that the humming had risen to a dangerous thrum and his kinetic barriers had long since overloaded. A full five seconds passed before he managed to put another foot forward, sweat dripping down his brow though whether from effort or the heat he couldn't tell. As the fight for his mind continued Zeras was sure of only one thing. He wasn't moving fast enough. One more step was all he could manage before he felt it. Scorching heat lapped at his exposed back as the air filled with a thunderous roar and pain filled every fibre of his being. The fabric of his envirosuit melted to his flesh mere milliseconds before the engine backwash reduced the two to blackened ash. Understanding it had lost, his true self mercifully gave up and Zeras' second consciousness joined with the flames, overwhelming him with the conflicting sensations of eternal peace and scorching pain.
Collapsing to the ground as he burned alive, one final thought plucked itself from deep within the recesses of Zeras'Boa's soul.