Vertigo

BY MISFIRE ANON

Ten.

The snowflakes burst into the room violently, their legions blurring the sharp corners of upturned tables and broken chairs. They advanced, wave upon wave, chasing the emptiness from the air.

Nihlus kicked away the papers littering the floor—or tried to, anyway. They fluttered with the snow, somehow found their peace in the turbulence, and eventually settled back at the beckoning of gravity. The ones that have been reduced to ashes, on the other hand, added pale shades of grey to the white swarms. Occasionally, a spark would put forth its orange light, to be smothered a moment later by its frozen comrades-in-arms.

The building swayed slightly in the high-altitude gusts. The Spectre smiled. A challenge gladly taken. Visibility was less than ideal. A rather common occurrence, in this line of work. A fellow agent, with his rifle already set up; barrel protruding a mere few millimetres from the jagged edge of broken glass.

Now that, that might be a problem.

Nine.

He stepped over the body of a security guard. Human, male, with a mop of brown hair covering his eyes. Unprofessional. Unarmed. A low-grade pistol lying too far from his left hand.

“You had to kill him?”

Saren gave him a look that said pretty much everything, then returned to his scope.

“Oh, come on. Look at this kid.” He nudged the corpse with the tip of an armoured toe. “Would have given you his lunch money without a fight.”

His ex-mentor was as oblivious to human aphorisms as always, because there was no response from the window perch.

“Speaking of lunch money…” He flipped the body over, eye ridge raised at the entrance wound on top of the human’s head. The hair had matted there into sienna lumps, making him wonder again how humans could possibly keep themselves clean. But the kill was. Clean, that is. Execution style. And, unfortunately, so were the kid’s armour compartments. A worthless anti-personnel mod in the thigh casing, nothing else. Not even enough creds to buy a meal, ironically. No ID.

“You never had the acumen for finance, but that is beneath even you, Kryik.”

Nihlus flicked one mandible in what one might call comfortable annoyance. He closed the boy’s hollow brown eyes and, after a pause, wrapped the numb fingers around the pistol by his side.

Eight.

“So, come here often? It’s a nice view. I understand. Our secret.” The shattered window looked down on a bottomless abyss, filled almost to the brim with mist and the ever-falling snow. Other spires rose from the pit; tall, slender, and glittering with golden lamps and frosted glass. Traffic was light that night. But then again, considering the date, it’s no surprise. He could make out a lone black limousine cruising the depths.

“Better through a scope.”

“Yeah.” He replaced the assault rifle in his hand with the sniper, appreciating briefly the smooth swing-and-click of the auto-assembly. “Right. That’s the right idea.” An overturned chair with an impossibly spindly leg made a good stand, though the recoil of the first shot would probably ruin it. Not that, of course, he’d need more than one. Saren would never get off of his fringe if that ever happened.

“Okay, so aiming the pale guy with the dark hair. Small gold earpiece. Huge nose. Dark blue—or green, I think—suit?”

“No.” That one word contained slightly more unpleasantness than the thirty-degrees-below weather outside on this iceball.

“Just kidding. It’s the turian. Not exactly easy to miss in that crowd.”

Seven.

Saren looked pensive. “You managed to found your way here.”

“Of course. All I had to do was follow the trail of corpses. You not being a breadcrumbs person and all.” He was suddenly on the receiving end of the interrogation look, and had to elaborate. “I’ve been after him for a while. Two of his men fucked up my one peaceful post-mission afternoon.”

“A while.”

“Four days.” Propping himself up on his elbows. “You did help. I wasn’t kidding about the corpses.”

“I have been tracing him for the past two months.”

Nihlus had known about the setup when he first saw it. Saren didn’t have to spell it out for him—what did he think he was, a VI? “I know. Got your note. Didn’t fool me a bit, and never will. Wouldn’t be here if you didn’t drop a human-sized hint on me. Or several. Felt like catching up?”

“Until I remembered how insufferable you are.” He deadpanned.

“So just business. I can see why. That glass’s pretty thick.” The retort (‘as are you’) did not come.

Six.

“H.E. round dead centre, then try to line up a second shot. Pray you’ll manage one.”

“Oh, and meanwhile, you go for the bareface’s head. Screw that. Kill’s mine.” Saren glared at him. He had the decency to wince. Never asked why the older Spectre bore no markings. Nihlus valued intact limbs too much.

In response, Saren snapped a sleek and, in contrast to the rifle, obviously brand-new cartridge to the slot beside the ammo chamber. In the same fluid motion, he tossed a second cartridge his way. He snatched it mid-parabola.

“Nice.” He tucked away the thermite paste fondly known as ‘Inferno’. “You must really not like that son of a krogan. That, or the thought of people’s heads melting away amuses you. I’ve seen it before; disgusting. Actually, don’t tell me which. Now you made me think of the Omega case again. Ugh, I just ate, too.”

Saren didn’t once take his eyes off of the scope. “I see the concept of professional silence continues to elude you.”

Two could play at that game, as the peculiar human saying went. He didn’t look up either, smirking at the fact that the centre of the window lined up nicely with the target’s left eyeball. “I’ll show you professional. Just give the signal.”

“Not yet. Waiting for the backup.”

Five.

Never trust the bastard to hold back from violence when he could help it. Nihlus had a sinking feeling; suddenly too aware of the nauseous sway of the tower. “Backup?”

“Neurotoxin. The release virus is taking its time to hack through maintenance and life support.”

“Oh.” A pause. “Won’t need it, now that I’m here. He’s not getting away.”

The target was standing now, shaking the hand of a grizzled, tanned human. There was a female as well, wearing a set of crystal jewellery that glistened even at this distance. She was gazing fondly at the man, a hand resting on his arm.

“I will release the toxin. You needn’t stay.”

And a little girl was with them, hair up in pigtails, not a day older than ten.

“The fuck, you can’t be serious.” Because he couldn’t be. This time, they could help it. No need to go the brutal mile. No need at all. He kept telling himself that.

“The filth built their fortunes—and these towers—with the bodies of innocents. Get it through that skull of yours.” He checked his omni-tool; Nihlus couldn’t make out the reading. The falling snow filled in the rest of the lecture.

Four.

“And fighting fire with fire works every time.” He snorted. “You really believe that?”

“My beliefs,” he replied icily, “are as follows. They will either send the innocents to safety first, or attempt to rush down the stairs en masse. And in that case, they deserve to die.”

“Oh.” He muttered. That was some piece of reasoning there. The kind of reasoning that only Saren and psychopaths adhered to. “That’s a house in an Invictus jungle if I ever saw one. You do realise that you’re depending on a bunch of smugglers to be nice, decent, caring people, right?”

“The opposite. I’m trying to kill them, if you haven’t noticed.”

He could practically hear his own mind whirr, trying to think of something, anything, that would dissuade the bareface beside him. Even considered a warning shot for the dinner party before ultimately deciding against it. Again, his fringe in one piece was something Nihlus valued. Non-suicidal means it was.

Three.

“Say, if we get the turian, the rest of them’ll scatter and flee like headless pyjaks. We can probably pick them off then.” Panicking humans weren’t exactly the easiest to aim for, but maybe Saren liked target practice. “Exit’s easily watched.”

“The lower levels are crawling with them.” He finally looked at Nihlus. “This chance will not go wasted; neither should your breath.”

It was a good plan until then. Change of tactics.

“Yeah, you’re right,” he drawled. “It’s so easy. Solving the problem with a compressed gas canister and two bullets. No need to get up close and personal. Nope. What an incredible feeling.”

Saren seemed to think that Nihlus had been hit in the head too many times. Or was just very insulted. A warning glance.

“I mean, who the fuck asks for a friendly chat these days? Sending mercs after someone is much better. More mess, but look on the bright side—an offer they can’t refuse.”

“Are you feeling well?” And if you were, then you won’t be for much longer.

He had to try. “They ambushed me in a bar full of civilians, Saren. Do you ever think about that?” A pause to draw breath, the air a flood of ice filling his lungs. “Of course I don’t fucking feel well. Death traps are for the other hundred and seventy-eight days of the year.”

“You look alive to me.”

Two.

He gave up.

Through the scope, the human was raising a glass of amber liquid. His lips were moving, and the translator streamed the words of the speech into Nihlus’ earpiece. The Spectre wasn’t listening, though; he was watching the little girl standing on tiptoes, trying to see what rested on top of the silver tablecloths.

“It was nice seeing you. Hope we don’t meet again anytime soon. I need to go.”

“Away from your duty.”

“What duty?” For Spirit’s sake, Saren was infuriating. He began to walk away. “As far as I know, I’m looking at the bastard who tried to get rid of me. And I’m being a damn good friend by not blasting his head off the instant I saw him.”

“I know.”

One.

Nihlus stopped dead. Saren continued, nonchalantly. “You are a good friend.”

He had heard those words exactly once before. More than a year ago, on the Citadel docks. An expansive view of the Widow in the background; a newly minted note of Spectre status in his file.

And, not ten minutes afterwards, he had been pinned to the bulkhead of his new ship by his wrists, his ‘friend’ and mentor busy removing his armour along what felt like the remainder of his dignity. He shuddered involuntarily, a spike of longing—or something like it—rushing from his nerves through his blood and feeding back to nerves again.

“Take the shot with me, Nihlus.” Like it wasn’t something he couldn’t do himself.

Like it wasn’t something he couldn’t do himself. Oh, but of course. Saren and his stupid, roundabout ways of getting at a few simple words. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

“That neurotoxin—“

“Like you said, death traps are for the other one hundred and ninety-nine days.”

“Seventy-eight.”

“You are simply lazy.”

At one second to midnight, the south-facing window of the penthouse room shattered. At half a second to midnight, a thermite-coated bullet made solid contact with the left eye of an infamous weapons smuggler. And on the stroke of midnight, two Spectres shared an intimate gesture in a snowbound, silent world.

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