She woke - still exhausted, throat parched, her own body curled up between two warm, angular ones. Saren's forehead was leaning against Nihlus shoulder. Fast asleep. She surprised herself by stroking the edge of his jaw, then she paused. She didn't to wake him. The fact that he was so deeply asleep was telling in itself. He had to be exhausted. He had to have been out of balance as well during the last few days, to say the least.
He didn't move, and there was no change in his breathing as she carefully extricated herself. Nihlus immediately sprawled out, taking up the space she just vacated. She was used to that behaviour from him, and it rarely failed to make her smile.
She padded out into the common area, located the cold storage, and retrieved a water bottle. Immediate problem resolved, she was already turning back to the sleeping quarters when a flicker from the terminal caught her attention.
She wandered over to the terminal, casually inspecting the display. A program was scanning the newsfeeds and, presumably, looking for interesting tidbits among the noise. That must part of Saren's normal schedule, and of course he would have that mind-numbing task automated.
The VI's symbol was up in one section of the screen, which was unusual. Even more unusual was that it disappeared as she moved to get its status report. It had to be coincidence; just a quirk of the scheduling, but still, it gave the distinct impression of hiding from her.
She smiled at the absurd thought, but grew curious about what model Saren's VI really was. From the way he had carried it from his wrecked ship and the fit he'd thrown when Nihlus had installed games on it, it had to be something quite sophisticated.
A few keystrokes opened up the VI's maintenance interface. One more tap, and the parameters and specifications filled the screen. Disappointing. It was the same model as the one on Nihlus' ship, and only one revision ahead. Nihlus was enthusiastic about having the latest tech in weaponry, but he tended to be much more lenient when it came to non-combat related technology. One revision past wasn't even top of the military line, let alone the bleeding-edge tech available to Spectres.
Her fingers hovered over the terminal. This made no sense. Even if it was heavily customised, it was far from irreplaceable; even taking his state of mind at the time into account, Saren shouldn't care that much about it.
The more she thought about it, the less the pieces fit. She had seen the VI's core, and there had been no logo or serial number on it. The VI had even a name. Saren was a lot of things, but he wasn't sentimental. A VI was nothing more than a tool, a collection of useful functions and a ruleset that described how to apply them. Saren was as likely to name a VI as he was to name his favourite sidearm.
"Cabal." she said.
The VI's symbol reappeared, fading in slowly. Hesitation. She wasn't imagining it. She took another look at the specifications. Not only was the model standard, there were no customisations at all. An unmodified ship VI wouldn't have the capabilities Cabal demonstrated when they'd made their escape from that unnamed moon.
What she was seeing was a front. It could be explained away with Saren's need for privacy, of course, but modifications to a VI was expected of him. He tended to put what trust he had into mechanical things, things he had specifications for, things he could control. It made no sense to disguise the fact that the VI was customised.
If he wanted that VI as undisturbed as possible, there had to be another reason for it.
It would be wise to leave this alone. As satisfying as the events of the last few hours had been, she didn't fool herself into thinking that Saren now trusted her, that she was safe from his temper if he caught her at it.
But she couldn't. It was a puzzle, a clue she needed to understand the situation. Besides, it didn't matter anymore, now. If he found out, he'd be furious anyway.
The standard diagnostic she tried to run on the VI reported everything normal, but when she took a look at the routine itself, she found it was just a stub. There should've been interfaces meant for integrating the VI into different systems, and they were absent.
She couldn't suppress the bolt of unease that ran down her spine. She couldn't see of the VI's core programming; try as she might, she found herself blocked at every turn. But the absence of features was enough.
It wasn't a VI. She wasn't sure what it was, because anything beyond a VI was tricky territory. AI research was restricted throughout Citadel space - no one wanted a repeat of the Geth fiasco. But prohibitions didn't stop anyone determined enough. Whatever this was, it was illegal. Spectres were technically above the law, but this might be a lot more trouble.
"Cabal. You're not a Synthetic Insights model. What are you?"
"I have no data available on this topic," the VI replied immediately, and she frowned again. That wasn't a proper response. She expected to be told about access restrictions, but it seemed like it didn't even know its own serial ID. VI's weren't programmed to lie either, were they?
"It's telling the truth." Saren's voice was calm, and she looked up to see him leaning against the bulkhead. She tensed instinctively; he didn't move. She wondered how long he had stood there, watching her trying to make sense of what she was seeing.
Like her, he hadn't bothered to dress. And while he seemed tense, he wasn't angry. "It doesn't have a designation or model number."
She flinched as he suddenly stood beside her, but he reached past her, decisively shutting down the diagnostic she had been running. His mandibles were lowered and tight against his jaw, showing his teeth. He rested both lands on the terminal, staring at it with head lowered. A few weeks ago she would have felt fear at his expression. Now - she still didn't know what it was, only there was no danger involved for her.
After a moment, his face went neutral again. "I suppose you will demand other explanations."
If anything, there was a trace of resignation in his tone. She hadn't intended to, but maybe it was a good time to clarify where they stood. "Probably not as many as you think. It got too strange for you, and you overreacted. I think I get it. I would like to know what you meant by miscalculation, though."
He studied the display intently, as if the answers were written there.
"I am not accustomed to be subject to this sort of emotion." There was a gravelly undertone in his voice. "Nor to reciprocate it, to such an extent."
Shepard shook her head. "I don't blame you for that." she said with a sudden flash of humour. "I think it's impossible not to develop feelings for Nihlus, once you gets to know him. Even if it took you some time."
His fingers clenched. "Not only him." His tone was too calm. "I've known him for a long time. Not you." There was a brief pause, and she winced as the tips of his claws scratched against the metal. Saren seemed to wince, too, and relaxed his hands. "My estimations were off, and I underestimated the consequences."
"Are you sure you want me along, at this time, on this mission? You could drop me off at the Citadel and resolve the situation, just the two of you."
He looked confused. "Why?"
If he's that intelligent and that dense at the same time, she had to be blunt.
"Because if we part now, we part as friends. I don't know if I can do that later, if I start caring too much as well." She was sure that point had already passed. "Or if you start resenting my friendship with Nihlus."
Saren's mandibles flared wide with more surprise that she'd ever seen. "You think I'm jealous?"
When she didn't reply, he shook his head slowly. "I am not. I envy you solely for the ease you have in handling emotional entanglement. It's not a competition about who is more important to him. If it were, the score would be even."
Maybe it was. Nihlus hadn't been all that subtle. "So you'll be fine with me staying around?"
His voice was flat. "I asked you both to come along." His head lowered further. "But I understand if you don't believe me."
It was a straightforward mission, the risks weren't high, and Saren normally wouldn't even bother with it, let alone ask for help. But it was perfect for individual specialists to learn to work as a team.
She took Saren's hand, ignoring his startled look, turned it around and inspected his fingers. He didn't resist as she ran a fingertip over the underside of his claws. The surface was smooth. Too smooth. It had been more than a week.
Still thinking, she let go of his hand.
She considered the ship, too. He might have acted like it was just a workaround, a temporary solution, but he could have easily gotten another strike craft. This was just Saren again, preparing for all eventualities. And however gruffly and reluctantly, he had come back for them when they could've found their own way back to the Citadel. She didn't know what to say, didn't know what to think.
She looked down at the terminal. Sometimes it was easier to start with the obvious things, if only to take her mind off the difficult ones.
"Your VI. It's not what it pretends to be."
"Few things are." The sudden change in topic didn't seem to surprise him. "I've been wondering when you'd catch up."
"Where did it come from?" she asked.
He gave her a measuring look. "I found it in a wrecked salvage ship, more than two decades ago. There were more of them, but this one was the only one that was functional. Its knowledge and functions were much more limited back then, enough that I didn't realise its nature at first." His tone was thoughtful. "I have never been able to determine its precise origin."
"You - what, trained it?"
He tossed his head back, almost defensively. "It has been very helpful."
"It can do data processing like no VI can because it understands purposes and concepts. I would not have attempted that jump with a normal VI, but Cabal can do jump calculations much faster than any system in Citadel space. It noticed the fighters and managed to compensate enough for us to arrive relatively unharmed and a safe distance from any star." Saren drew a finger over the terminal absently. "Unfortunately, Nihlus' ship didn't have the hardware to let it interface directly with the navigation system. If it could have done that, we might have made it directly to Farside."
He interpreted her look of surprise correctly. "Yes, it had the interfaces to navigate my ship directly. It had been doing so for years. If necessary, it could run mission control for me, keep me informed of enemy movements on a battlefield. That's something it has learned to do on its own."
"You mean it's evolving."
"In a way. Its structure is becoming more complex, and the functions it has are extending. It can provide very unbiased analyses of facts and situations."
Her mind was still stuck on him calling the construct helpful. He hadn't said useful. Saren as precise in his use of language as he was in his use of a sniper rifle. He had just implied that he even asked for opinions, and she wondered briefly whether those extended to personal situations.
It also explained his reaction when Nihlus had tampered with the VI. It hadn't been anger at having his possessions or even his secrets disturbed. He had, maybe subconsciously, defended a team mate.
Saren had to be aware of her scrutiny. "Cabal, stop evading." His fingers moved over the interface. "Here. This is what you were looking for."
She stepped closer, curiosity overriding apprehension as she looked at the scrolling data. It was some sort of code, but the structure and even the symbols were unfamiliar. What she faced was not only a full AI, but one of very doubtful and probably alien origin.
"I can't make anything out of this," she said slowly. "Can you?"
Saren shook his head.
She felt she was missing something here. "If you can't verify the programming, you can't be certain of its motivations and decisions. Or control it."
He was still looking down at the terminal. "I cannot. I can calculate possible reactions and behaviours based on previous experience, but I cannot predict with complete accuracy. It's impossible, just as with an organic life form."
"Then how do you keep it under control?"
A trace of indignation crept into his tone. "Shepard, I'm not forcing it to do what it's doing. It chose to be here, and it understands its duty."
Of course it would, if Saren had trained it. Her head was swimming. Saren had found an alien AI, and instead of destroying it, he had kept it, trained it into a Spectre's support. And it was still evolving, learning.
"I'm guessing Nihlus doesn't know about it."
Saren shrugged. "He doesn't. He won't see it as a problem, though." There was faint humour in his tone. "If anything, he'll consider it amusing. I suspect he will even continue to play games with it and start calling it by name." The humour faded."He'll take my word that it isn't a threat."
A matter of trust. Saren never did anything without a reason. He wouldn't have revealed Cabal to her if he didn't expect her to stay around for a period of time well beyond the scope of the simple mission at hand. He had more or less befriended an AI and come to trust it - which was disturbing, but also a sign of hope.
Showing the AI to her was his way of showing trust outside the battlefield or the bedroom, and it was specifically meant for her. Telling Nihlus about this wouldn't be the same thing because he knew Nihlus wouldn't object. But she could get him into all sorts of trouble because of the AI. She could force him to adhere to the letter of the law and get rid of it. If she really felt like it, she could go to the Council.
He had given her a weapon.
Saren moved his hand and the display turned off. He still wasn't looking at her, and his face was still carefully neutral. "What are you going to do?"
About what? About the AI? About Nihlus? About you? About this becoming a three-way relationship?
About the AI, nothing. Sure, the idea of an alien AI more or less in control of the ship was bizarre. The fact that they had played vid games with it even more so. But same went for the whole situation. An AI wasn't going to change things. And she wasn't going to take away something he regarded as a friend, whether he actually used that word or not. Besides, it had saved their lives.
About the rest, she didn't know what to say. Their activities from a few hours ago had been more than closure, or answering basic urges, or even a strange apology on Saren's part. Something between them had shifted, then locked into a sort of balance. Whether the balance had any hope of stability was beyond her. There was still too much error in translation.
She paused, realising that she had already reached her decision.
Stay, see where this goes, try to make it work. Take it one problem at a time, work through them. Be patient, because it will either happen at its own pace or not at all. And try for normal.
There was not much answer she could give, though, not in words, not now.
"I think," she said, "that we'd better be up to form when we investigate that factory. We need to learn to work as a team, and that might need some adjusting to. And I for one still need rest. I'm going back to bed." She gave the console a pat. "Good night, Cabal."
The terminal flickered into life for a split second, then went dark again, as if the AI was unsure as whether and how to respond. She turned away, then pushed past Saren through the door.
She was already a few steps into the corridor when she noticed that he was not behind her. Instead, he was leaning on the door frame, head lowered, pointedly looking away from her. There was a calm finality to the pose, as if he intended to stay there all night. And she wouldn't put it past him to actually follow through on that.
This was getting ridiculous. She suppressed a sigh, feeling both disarmed and exasperated. "Well. Are you coming?"
His gaze turned to her, calculating, and then he simply nodded and moved to follow her. The curve of his neck was relaxed again and the nearly inaudible exhale of relief was certainly not meant for her ears. But the gentle brush of his fingers over her shoulder was definitely not accidental.
She settled in the bed next to Nihlus, who opened one green eye to a narrow sliver, then rolled on his side and drew her into his arms with a drowsy but perfectly content trilling rumble, curling up around her. The mattress lowered when Saren stretched himself out behind her. He shifted to touch foreheads with Nihlus.
She was almost asleep when she felt his hand rest on her hip, a very light touch. She reached down, covering his hand with her own and he sighed, closed that distance between them, curling up around her. He was awkward about it, but at the very least willing to try. She smiled.
Maybe this actually had a chance of working out. And maybe it wouldn't even take that long.