This is a very old version of chapter 1 of Thinker Traitor Soldier Spectre, the Mass Effect fanfiction novel I finished in 2019, posted here as part of An Exercise in Self-Critique 4. Compare it to the official final version here.
A bright morning in Har Triste on Palaven. He’s standing on the edge of a crater, ankle-deep in the rubble. Where the Subourus Plaza used to be. The buildings around still stand. At angles. Burnt and punctured, shattered windows and naked armature. He can’t remember which war he’s fighting in, but war it is. His planet is under attack, his people suffering. Yet as he looks up at two winding missile tails in the serene yellow sky, he only thinks, it’s beautiful.
Saren awoke wide-eyed. His heart was drumming in his ears, rapid, like a frightened child’s. He closed his eyes again and ran a hand over his face. His palm was wet. Everything was wet, the underweave of his hardsuit, the support of the pilot chair under his fringe. But why? It wasn’t a nightmare. It was… strangely pleasant.
Unless there were parts of it he didn’t remember.
It took him several blinks to break away from the dream and focus on the when and where. The Virial, his light corvette, was about to go through the Caestus relay. He awoke just in time to hear the rude voice of the VI:
“Disengaging FTL drive in sixty seconds. ETA to Caestus relay, five minutes.”
He sat in wait for the FTL engine to unwind, thought about putting on the helmet, just in case; decided against it, it would be paranoid, and worse, it would invite bad luck. A few beats later, he unbuckled from the seat and went in the back to fetch the helmet after all. He set in on the console and buckled up again. Just in case.
Okeer was sly. Too sly for a krogan. What if he were to set up an ambush, hiding behind the relay in order to shoot Saren’s ship when it emerges? No. Unlikely. There wasn’t enough time for such a maneuver. Instead, Okeer would probably dive straight for the atmosphere. His ship, the Wisp, had custom-modded shields and hull plating, and she could make a steeper, faster descent than the Virial. Once he was in, there would be no catching him. He’d ignore the hails from the planetary defenses and eject before they shot him down. He’d crash somewhere in the jungle and not even the great Spectre, Saren Arterius, would be able to fish him out of there.
That’s not an option.
Saren enjoyed tangling with a worthy opponent from time to time; they chanced upon him so very rarely. But Okeer was pushing it, testing his patience. Kept acting against Saren’s deeply seeded preconceptions about how a krogan should act, kept him on the edge, kept throwing surprises at him. When his contact in the salarian Special Tasks Group informed him that Okeer had managed to steal the data and get out of their top secret facility unscathed, Saren was intrigued; when Okeer had managed to swap his original ship for the Wisp using nothing but charm and empty promises, Saren was amused; when Okeer had managed to hide his intentions by brilliant misdirection aimed squarely at Saren’s racism, Saren was annoyed. And now that he knew Okeer was bound for Invictus, now that the chances of catching him alive and retrieving the stolen data were getting thinner with each passing minute, Saren became anxious.
The Virial broke back into normal space. Saren cast his eyes through the viewport and – there! He saw the distant relay blink in a soft spectrum of blues as the Wisp passed through. Good. It meant he gained on him during FTL flight. They were no more than a minute apart now. He glanced on the console as the VI addressed him again:
“Approach vector acquired. Relay jump in sixty seconds. Countdown options…”
“Silent countdown,” Saren said. “Link us to the comm. buoy as soon as we clear the relay.”
“Link with Invictus comm. buoy pending.”
Saren was barely stifling the anticipation, sitting as upright as the straps would allow, his fingers hovering over the console, ready to reprogram the autopilot at the first sign of trouble. In part, this was the usual thrill of the hunt; but he was also tired and disgusted by his mistakes, and weary of making more. The relay lit up, a sparkly blue eye that grew larger and larger until it could no longer fit the viewport. Saren found himself holding his breath during the jump, an old habit he couldn’t be bothered to examine. A moment of stillness, a brief peek into the void, and just like that, he was propelled to the other side of the Galaxy.
When he opened his eyes, the sickly green disk of Invictus was fifteen degrees wide in his sight.
“Jump complete,” the VI said. “Link with Invictus comm. buoy pending.”
A coordinate grid projected over the viewport. The Virial – a little blue triangle on a clean trajectory for suborbital descent; the Wisp – a red triangle on a nearly parallel course. Saren tapped into the haptic interface and the distance meter blinked into existence, increasing mercilessly. The Wisp had better propulsion. He was gaining again, and like Saren had predicted, he was descending at a steeper angle, their predicted paths going into wild divergence near the surface.
“Link with Invictus comm. buoy pending.”
Saren growled. “What’s taking so long?”
“The planetary security protocols may take up to… Link with Invictus comm. buoy established.”
“Patch me in with the command of the Justice. Flag as urgent.”
Justice, the turian dreadnaught, was a yellow octagon on the tactical map, lumbering in the planet’s L2 point.
A woman’s voice sounded through the speakers. “This is the XXX Justice. We have you on our scanners. State the nature of the emergency.”
“This is Agent Saren with the Special Tactics and Reconnaissance. I’m in pursuit of a vehicle on steep suborbital descent. I need you to bring it down – safely.”
“Verification in progress… Verified. Welcome to Invictus, Spectre. We can try to disable the vehicle with the disruptor torpedo before it reaches the atmosphere, but unless you change course or speed, your ship will be caught within the radius of the effect.”
“I’ll slow down,” Saren said, and his fingers were already dancing on the console. “Do it now.”
The dreadnaught was too far to actually see through the viewport, but the disruptor torpedo was visible as a hairline trail of yellow off to Saren’s right. He tracked it on the tactical map, an arrow converging on the path of the red triangle with agonizing deliberation. It wormed closer, and closer, and finally, the red triangle blinked out.
And reappeared on a new trajectory.
The VI and the voice from Justice started talking at the same time.
“Warning. Vehicle on collision course….”
“Partial hit. We confirm minor damage….”
Saren cursed. Collision course? Really, Okeer? He typed into the console, scrolled through the list of evasive maneuvers, made his choice. The Virial’s thrusters fired up and his stomach stiffened in protest. If only he could shoot down the damned krogan, everything would be so much simpler. A part of him wanted to press that red button. It stared at him unblinking, seductive, inviting. Press me. You know you want to.
“Collision imminent in… three minutes,” the VI announced.
“Do you copy, Spectre?” said the voice of Justice.
Saren blinked, confused. He’d lost a few seconds. He shook his head, retracted the hand that was halfway to the cannon controls.
“Repeat the query, Justice,” he said, while switching to a different pattern of evasive maneuvers. He knew Okeer wouldn’t kill himself. But if he were to eject just before… He could still link into the comm. buoy using his omni-tool and bribe someone to pick him up. Invictus certainly didn’t lack the sort of people who’d welcome the credits for any sort of dirty work.
“I repeat,” said Justice, “we’re registering an increase in the energy output of the vehicle. They are targeting your propulsion systems, Spectre.”
At that, Saren glimpsed the Wisp through the viewport. She was still far away, but now there were two red dots, like malicious little eyes shining to her sides and they were closing in quickly.
“Virial, launch decoys,” Saren said, floating on a strange sense of detachment echoed from his dream.
“Decoy bundle, launched.”
Saren watched with deep fascination as the missiles veered away from their linear path, going after the decoys. This sky was black, and the trails red, and they weren’t making the elegant long spirals he remembered from the dream, but there was no denying the similarity. Most of all in the way he felt about them. Instead of fear or anger or excitement, there was only an aesthetic curiosity.
One missile hit the decoy, then the other, and the Virial was caught in the blast radii of both. The cabin and everything inside shook and tilted, then overturned and kept on spinning, and Saren grappled over the smooth surface of the console seeking something to hold on to, but there was nothing other than his helmet, which toppled out of his hands and hit him in the forehead. The lights twinkled in and out a couple of times before settling on a dull orange, indicating lack of power.
“Status!” Saren growled, trying to keep his stomach from lurching.
“Main power supply failure. Auxiliary generators on line. Navigation on line. Propulsion off line. Thrusters off line. Weapons on line. Shields at sixty percent. Life support on line…”
“Enough. Justice, what’s the situation?”
“The target has disengaged and is back on its original trajectory.”
“Shoot him with another disruptor.”
“Negative. The cooldown for the disruptor torpedo launcher is five minutes. Should we shoot the target with conventional weapons?”
Saren had to work to subdue the frustration. Calm down. No more mistakes.
“No,” he said. “Let him land. He might eject and let his ship crash. I want air and ground teams ready to sweep the area and secure the crash site. The subject is a krogan, biotic, alone but armed and dangerous. I want him alive. Make sure they get that.”
“Acknowledged, Spectre. Our scanners indicate your propulsion is off line. Do you need assistance?”
“Send someone to pick me up and take me planet-side. Over and out.”
Saren gritted his teeth and hit the bulkhead with an armored fist, but the pain brought little comfort.