[61]

Nihlus paused at the foot of the stairs and waved the plastic tube. “I’m looking for a replacement water filter. The small ones, for the tap.”

“They’re on the third row.” Saren’s eyes narrowed as Nihlus padded his way across the vehicle bay. “Use a ladder.”

There were perfectly sturdy crates lined up in the bottom row. But still, the ladders were just a few steps away from the workbench, and it gave him an excuse to peer over Saren’s shoulder. Saren was poking at something small, and the panels overhead were set to maximum brightness. Maybe he’d picked up that targeting system from Ilium after all.

Nihlus spotted the cushioned case, hidden behind a tri-tiered toolbox. Wasn’t the targeting system. He whistled. 

“So that’s the new pair. How do they fit?”

Saren set the pointed steel tweezers aside. He picked up a can of DFE and tossed it lightly, testing its weight. “Need some adjustments. Get me another can, Nihlus. Second row, fifth bin from the left.”

Aside from the tweezers, there were an assortment of screwdrivers and little flat knives resting in the gullies surrounding the antistatic mat. Nihlus stopped by the far end of the bench and leaned over, studying the amps. They were unblemished. Newer than others he’d seen, including the ones Saren kept in the red box, but that was all he could tell. There were two smooth bumps, or contact nodes, at the end of each amp; the rest of the metal was matte, including the familiar latches that would adhere to the waterproof seals. The metal was faintly teal in colour. He wanted to turn them over, but Saren’s eyes flashed a bright warning in the fluorescent light. 

“Ever since you showed me that Deccretion Disk, I’ve been reading about biotics,” he said, retracting his hand. He crossed his legs under the table, putting a bit more weight on his folded arms. Nice and casual. I mean confident. Ah, fuck it. Left mandible twitching, he studied Saren’s expression. It was blank, but strained. Not in a bad way. 

“Have you,” Saren muttered.

“Yeah. The asari are the experts when it comes to making amps — big surprise there — but I read it’s specifically the Serrice Council that’s considered the industry leader. Has been for three centuries. The Armali Council and the Zhirian Collective are the runner-ups. They’ve got products for practically all races, but they aren’t cheap, and they’re choosy about their clients.” He skewed his brows. “Bet Spectre privileges come in handy there.”

“They might.” Saren was distracted, untangling the wires on a voltmeter. Weird. Nihlus swore he’d folded those properly when he’d put it away a couple of days ago. 

“I’ll wager the salarians must be close behind, even though they haven’t gone public with any of their work. The krogan are the best evidence. Models developed for krogan shock troops back during the Rachni Wars are still in use in the hinterlands, so imagine what they’re doing for their own operatives back home. Gotta give the asari a run for their money.

“And the Hierarchy… The Hierarchy isn’t the most transparent about this. Even less than the salarians, if you can imagine. But I do know that Armax has a basic line, probably a separate experimental one, too, that’s limited to troops on active duty. Osanus Group and Lantiirix Medical partner with the Cabals. Must be a few other state-owned companies out there who want to keep a low profile. Would you happen to know them?”

Saren gave a noncommittal harrumph. “Have you seen the rubber ties for these?”

“They’re grey, right?” Nihlus rubbed the back of his head. Play it cool. “Same as the bench. And most of the floor. Look,” he added quickly, ducking out of the way of a metaphorical bullet, “just tie the ends around the whole bunch. No fiddling with the tiny-ass button, saves mass…”

Clank

The gas-duster can was set before him. He picked it up, stuffed it inside the dirty water filter, and sighed. “I’ll get you another. I wanted to see what make your amp was, all right? But it’s none of the ones I know. Definitely not asari.”

“You can tell?” Saren asked, sounding genuinely curious.

“Yeah. I’ve flipped through a lot of catalogues recently. I’m not surprised, really. Every mercenary I know swears by their personal supplier, usually some license-less fixer out in the Traverse running their business out of a freighter. I heard there’re a lot of geniuses out there, and just as many crooks. Still, that’s how they like it.” He glanced at Saren’s amps again, then at his face. Their eyes did not meet. “Not that I’m suggesting yours are illicit, but…”

“Spectre privileges can extend to many areas.”

“Basically.”

“Were these mercenaries turian?”

“No — mostly. First biotics I remember seeing were a pair of asari maidens, waiting outside the door while my dad grabbed an omni and a drink from our prefab. I was six, I think. I never spoke with them, but my dad talked about them a lot after the job was done. It was a hit on a sand shipment; the competition wanted their own people on the squad. He complained about ‘the xenos’ taking a big cut of the payout, but still praised them for ‘nice supportive waists’.” Nihus shook his head. “Back then, I didn’t even know what that meant.

“But I’ve met a turian, just the one. At a bar on Invictus, in fact. He said he used to be in the Cabals, but he quit as soon as his service was up. I didn’t know mandatory service lasted six years longer for biotics. No waivers. Considering everything, it seems unfair.”

Saren was looking at him. Nihlus scrutinised the inscrutable. Not anger, definitely not anger. Exhaustion?

“The Cabals are the only branch where soldiers are admitted by birth, not by merit,” Saren said at last. He nudged the twin leads with the back of his hand, pushing them parallel to one another.

His tone was strange. Mechanical, yet unsteady somehow. Familiar, like an echo of Nihlus himself. Nihlus stood up, arms folded, legs straight, and loudly cleared his throat. “Pardon me, sir, but that’s a load of crap.” 

There was another long pause. Nihlus didn’t so much as shuffle his feet.

“You’re right,” Saren whispered.

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