[24, 25, 26]

Nihlus has wondered about it for quite some time now. Ever since he discovered the block of ammo in the small drawer of Saren’s desk. Someone had meticulously carved Saren’s name–first and last–into it, along with noting that the memento was issued in honour of being first in his class during ATT. Now, he liked Saren. Maybe a bit more than ‘liked’. Okay, a lot more. But ever since finding out, he’s begun to obsess over the idea. Who was better at tactics? Could he run circles around his mentor?

He had to know. Might just come in handy. For matters distantly related to combat, but still.

See, these were his feelings on most of those FIC types in general, especially in tactical training. One, they couldn’t innovate worth a shit. Not the “switch formation” kind of innovate, but the “tie oil drum to enemy varren and light when a safe distance away” kind of innovate. Two, fifty percent of their rank owed to their sucking up to the instructor. Three, they were useless on any real battlefield, because they didn’t take suggestions kindly. Nihlus would know. Had to give one a swollen eye before he saw reason.

Oh, and four. They tended to look real ugly. Even before any swollen eyes. Now, Saren might be all of the first three, but he was definitely not the fourth. Nihlus resisted the sudden urge to reach about forty centimetres to the right and twenty up. Only the thought of rover maintenance duty kept him from doing just that. About half the armour plating needed to be repaired, and the other half was non-existent.

“That will do.” Saren had finished reading over his shoulder, apparently. “I have a new task for you.”

“Oh, thanks. For a second there I thought you were about to say, ‘Nihlus, your talons look like they’ve been worn down enough. Why don’t you give the writing a rest and have a drink?’ But no. What d’you need?”

Saren merely blinked at him. “It’s finished. You may test it now.”

It took a minute for it to register. When it did, Nihlus’ eyes went wide. “Already?”

“This should suffice. It’s an advanced scenario, not only because of the fact that there are no others under your direct command.”

Looks like he’d find out.

He booted up the Space Conquest program on his omni. The sixth in the series. Best engine of the franchise, in his opinion–though it was over ten years old. You could do a lot of things with it. Stage space operas, remake classic arcade games… Once, he’d seen a farming simulation go viral on the extranet. But for their purposes, it was an excellent tactical simulator.

He linked to the ship’s computing core and retrieved the custom file. Glanced over the map preview. Not too complicated, in his experience. He’s made maps almost four times as big.

It was Saren’s first time modding. How hard could it be?

As it turned out, he shouldn’t have asked that question. Not even in his head.

“Damn it! Fuck! These fuckers won’t leave me alone!” The third-person view showed his player character, a black-armoured turian, sprinting down a rainforest trail, several klixen hot on his heels. He snapped back to first person, took a few pistol shots from the hip. Damn. The accuracy modifier must be terrible. Damn it.

“Standard Shanxi mountain bex VI. Fixed with the patch.”

“I know!”

“Do you have any idea where you’re going?” Saren had brought over a chair for himself some five minutes ago. Must be a Spirits-damned simulstim for him.

“I can see in front of me! Now shut up and let me concentrate!”

“Why don’t you use your pistol again.”

Nihlus did. Several times. To no effect. “Yeah, great idea. I’m spamming F5 here, and all that does is piss them off.”

“I may have made this segment too challenging.”

He snorted. “You think? Now just shut up. I can do this. Damn motherfucker.”

“Excuse me?”

“The klixen, I meant.”

He furrowed his brows. The escarpment was coming up in that bit of light ahead, if he remembered correctly. Maybe, just maybe…

“Yes!” The character snatched the hanging vine and jumped. He then flattened himself against the cliff, missing the falling klixen by centimetres. “Take that, you bastards!” Nihlus pumped his fist in the air.

He then panned the camera to catch the silhouettes of two harvesters in the background.

Well, fuck.

“This gun is OP,” he said out of the corner of his mouth, a piece of jerky between his teeth. “It was OP in the original game, and it’s still OP. You should’ve modified the damage multipliers. Damn, I love this.”

Saren said nothing. Nihlus shrugged and pressed on. He eventually came to what he hoped was the last checkpoint. Saved his progress. Then the realisation took hold.

“… And it’s not going to help me open this damn door, is it.” He sighed.

Saren smirked. Maybe. Too quick to catch.

Alright. Puzzle time. The player character stood at the door, hands at his sides. Nihlus set him to work. Check the ground. Perhaps he could dig underneath the gate. But no, the dirt was packed tight. Perhaps there were footholds on the slot canyon sides? Nope. They were even concave. What about backtracking to get that vine? He considered it. No. Timer said before daylight. He was screwed.

“I think you’ve made a mistake.”


“I’ve searched all the bodies. There were no keys.” He threw up one hand in exasperation. “There’s no way I can get this open without making a racket.”

Saren shrugged elegantly. “There’s always another way.”

“What? How?” His character didn’t have the right modules loaded to hack the lock. If only he did. If only–

Wait a minute.

His character didn’t. He did.

Nihlus switched out of the game and headed for the custom scenario’s data files. He hovered over the relevant entry. Saren didn’t stop him. He quickly changed the parameters, and then switched back to Conquest.

“That’s really unfair, just so you know.”

That shrug again.

He pushed the gate open and peeked inside. The camp was quiet. No patrols that he could see. A fire was burning in the distance, perhaps still with something left on the spit. There was a thick, wooden post. Five or six varren were leashed to it, and they, like their masters, were slumbering. The ground beside the path was littered with barrels and broken lengths of rubber hose.

“Damn. You read my file, didn’t you.” It was out of his mouth before he realised the stupidity of the statement. “Oh, how I love you. I can’t wait for this to be updated with the bloodraging krogan. Heck of a fight.”

There was a short pause. “I could not find the krogan character models. You will face bloodraging humans instead.”

Nihlus laughed. With a flick of his finger, he egged his character on. The model had dark plates and bone-white markings.

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