Private Conversation

Chapter 3 of The Candidate

It was half past ten. Nihlus had already searched two abandoned buildings for ‘meeting room eight’ and was running out of patience. Not that he’d been in any sort of patient mood even before setting out; he simply couldn’t believe that Saren had upped and left him to handle the evaluation just like that. Was he out of his twisted mind? He’d been acting strange ever since that fallout they had over cleaning the ship, of all things. Like an old married couple.

They’d had something like a fight and then Saren had told him to get the fuck out of his sight. Prior to that memorable occasion, Nihlus had only heard him curse once or twice during the entire course of his training. Of course he had done as bidden and left. It had been three weeks before Saren had contacted him again.

They flew here on a civilian shuttle and exchanged a total of three partial conversations: a cold hello when they first met (just hello; no how have you been, or what have you been up to, or how did you manage the three weeks without pay and a place to stay). Saren told him then, in that even, impassive voice of his, that he’d sent the evaluation report regarding Nihlus’s candidacy to the Council. A positive evaluation report. Making his appointment a matter of formality. Nihlus had to invest every shred of self-control into hiding the slew of opposing emotions that had blinded and deafened him: he’d be a Spectre! That was awesome! But he didn’t want the training to be over. That was dreadful.

He paused to shake the conflicting feelings away: not the time, not the place.

The second bit of conversation was a set of instructions during their FTL flight, about how Saren imagined the game and what sort of recruits his algorithms for “objective” selection picked out (misfits, every last one of them; Saren apparently had a thing for misfits). And the final took place before the inspection, if one could call that a conversation at all.

After the inspection was over, Nihlus hurried to Saren’s prefab and found it locked; the trooper on patrol said the Spectre had already gone to the spaceport. Nihlus tried running to get there in time to speak to him; and arrived half an hour too late, panting and sweating like a varren in heat, having learned first-hand why Ganima was a prime spot for training after all.

The building he entered now seemed empty as well. He simply couldn’t wrap his mind around this camp. Where were all the people? Where were the recruits? The instructors? The drill sergeants? Where were guards and officers? Saren had told him once that these camps were a joke, that the probability of being inducted into the Spectres this way was close to nil. But Nihlus didn’t think it would be this kind of a joke. And the men in the two squads didn’t look like they were to joke with. Not at all. Misfits or not, Saren had chosen them well.

He looked behind one door, behind another, looked for signs on the walls or ceiling. Nothing.

“Look. Dad. This has to stop. I’m old enough…”

The irritated words coming from the room in front froze him still. He couldn’t see the speaker, but he thought he could recognize the voice of one of the selectees. The defiant young man with silver skin and the proud cobalt colors of Palaven.

“Why? Just because you say so? I don’t buy that. This is my decision to make, not…”

A pause. The other side of the conversation probably went into the boy’s earpiece. Nihlus considered his options: sneak back, walk right by, or stay and listen in.

“What do you mean, they never come back?”

Interesting. Nihlus decided to stay.

“It’s a military operation, Dad, of course there are casualties. We all know the risks, blah blah blah… What do you mean, ‘none’? You’re making no… Well that’s odd. How many did you say?”

Nihlus caught himself extending his neck in the direction of the voice, itching to hear the missing part of the conversation. They were obviously talking about Saren’s evaluation games.

“Look, Dad… Will you let me speak for a moment? Thank you. Listen. I can take care of myself. I’ll look into… There you go again. Can’t we talk like normal people for five minutes? I won’t… Dad. I won’t get killed. I promise.”

Nihlus shook his head. Don’t make promises you can’t keep, kid. We all get killed sooner or later.

“You know, I was just waiting for you to bring Mum up.”

The boy’s voice went into a deeper register and Nihlus found himself swallowing a knot. It no longer felt right to listen. But for some reason he couldn’t walk away.

“Dad, please. That’s just not fair. This is what I want. I don’t want to be a cop. I want to be… well, a stylish cop.”

The smugness in his voice was so perfect that Nihlus couldn’t stop himself from chuckling.

“Yeah, sorry, that was cheap. But so was dragging Mum into this. Don’t you think she wants me to follow my heart? Don’t you think I know her well enough to tell?”

A long pause ensued, and the spell of curiosity almost wore off, but then the boy spoke again.

“I can’t believe I’m hearing this. Dad. If you do this… Are you serious? I can’t…”

The voice became rasp and desperate. “If you do this, I don’t know if I’ll ever speak to you again.”

There was silence. Longer than before, and Nihlus guessed the conversation was over. Then came a burst of sound as the boy growled and drove one limb or another into something solid with a painful thud. Nihlus leaped into motion, pushed the door open, and found a furious turian trashing about in an empty room.

He didn’t waste words; he grabbed the boy’s shoulder from behind and sure enough, a fist with sufficient momentum to turn him stupid flew in his general direction as the boy spun to face him. But Nihlus was expecting it and ducked. The force of the blow carried the boy over his shoulder and all he had to do was give a slight push up to topple the boy head over heels.

“What the fuck?” said the boy, sitting up and spitting out dust he’d picked up from the naked tile floor.

“You done?”

The boy looked around, dazed. “Yeah. I think.” He sprung to his feet, flexed his shoulders and tugged on his uniform. There was still a patch of dust on his face but he was dead serious, his mandibles pressed together so tight that Nihlus could almost hear them creak. “You listened to my private conversation.”

“Guilty.”

The boy stared at him for a few beats, unbelieving, then suddenly relaxed, shook his head, and even smiled a little. “Damn. That was so…”

“Turian of me?”

“Exactly.”

Nihlus smiled back. If only you knew how badly that description applies to me.

“Sir?”

“Nihlus.”

The boy nodded. “Nihlus. I’m sorry you had to witness that. I’m not usually prone to… outbursts.”

Right. And I’m a krogan princess. “Vakarian, was it?”

“Yeah. Garrus. Is that ok? First names and all? I’ve never spoken to a Spectre before.”

Nihlus started to wave it off and say he wasn’t yet a Spectre, but stopped just in time. “It’s fine,” he said instead. He wondered if he had become a passable liar next to Saren; not two years ago, he couldn’t lie worth a shit, just like Vakarian here. But judging from his awed expression, it not only passed, it passed with flying colors. An awed expression he must have had when he’d met Saren. It seemed like an eternity ago.

“So, what was that all about?” he said.

Vakarian shook his head again, searching the floor for an answer. “It’s a long story. But… There’s something… only I’m not sure I should…”

“Ask about Saren?”

“Yeah.”

“Go ahead. With the understanding that you may not be answered.”

“Of course. See, Dad told me the weirdest thing. Did you know no man has ever returned from Saren’s evaluations? Not one. In eight years.”

Nihlus shifted his weight from one leg to another. He’d guessed it would be something like that. It certainly was odd. Hell, more than odd. More like, unbelievable. Still… it could be explained away with enough mental gymnastics. He was sure Saren would be perfectly capable of giving a plausible rationale faster than he could say one-night-stand. “How’d your father get this intel?”

“He’s C-Sec. Really good at this kind of stuff.”

“I see.”

Vakarian was looking at him impatiently. “And?”

“And what?”

“Is it true? Is that what’s going to happen here?”

“You mean, are you all going to die?”

“Well… yeah. Are we?”

Nihlus laughed. He liked this Garrus Vakarian; there was not a shred of fear or any kind of concern in his voice. The questioning was a matter of pure, almost child-like, curiosity. “I suppose it could happen, yeah,” he said. “But not by design. And, technically speaking, this is not Saren’s evaluation. It’s… mine.”

It was so odd to say that, to lie like that, but it seemed to go down well. Too well.

“Damn. Why didn’t I think of that? Shit. See, technically speaking, I shouldn’t care less because Dad’s pulling me out of training anyway.”

“Is that so?”

Nihlus took a double take within at how Saren-like his own voice sounded to him. It was Saren’s phrase, all with Saren’s inflections, with Saren’s impossible confidence. And to his astonishment, he found the confidence was well backed up; he could literally see the relevant parts of the Council legislature governing the Spectre selection process scrolling before his eyes. Article 53, Point 4, any adult turian in active military service may apply for Spectre training. It was a simple matter, really. There were no legal means to stop someone from signing up. Even your own son. Just for fun, Nihlus tried to pull up Vakarian’s file from memory, and lo! There it was! Vakarian was twenty one. What? Only three years younger than himself? He looked like a boy to Nihlus, swimming in hormones and rebellious energies. No matter; he was definitely an adult by both Hierarchy and Council standards. And Nihlus’s words of doubt had not been empty.

“Well,” said Vakarian, “I know that he shouldn’t be able to. But a lot of people – important people – owe him favors. I don’t know how he’s going to do it, but I know he will. And I fucking hate him for it.”

Nihlus dropped his eyes. His father was dead, and he hadn’t seen his mother in almost a decade. The notion of a big caring family offended him.

“If it’s any consolation,” he said after a while, “I don’t think there are people important enough to pull off something like that – not with Saren, anyway. Well, unless the Council orders it. Do your father’s connections go that high?”

“I have no idea. Damn, I hope not. Wait… didn’t you say this was your evaluation?”

“Saren will come back to make the final decision. But until then… yeah, I’m running the show. And I assure you: if people die, it will be their own fault, not Saren’s. Or mine.”

“Fair enough,” Vakarian said.

They stood in silence for a few seconds, and Nihlus glanced at his omni. It was almost eleven. “You don’t happen to know where meeting room eight is?”

Vakarian laughed, and it was a deep, rich laughter of a good man, the kind of laughter Nihlus had no defenses against. “Wrong side of camp. People only come here to hide. And fuck. And sniff.”

Nihlus must have made a fatherly (or Sarenly) face because Vakarian hurried to say, “Not me, I swear. I don’t do that sort of stuff. Sniffing, I mean. I sometimes do need to hide. Obviously. And…”

“Yeah, I get the picture.” Nihlus wanted to say more, he wanted to say there was no need to be mortified because he too liked to hide and sniff from a time to time, and drink, and fuck. Oh yes, he did. But he wasn’t supposed to make friends. Not here, not now. No matter how much he liked Vakarian, he was a Spectre now, even if it was a borrowed title, and no matter how reassuring he’d managed to sound just seconds ago, he knew he might easily happen to send the dead body of the said Vakarian to his father in a matter of days, or even hours. So he suppressed the laughs and said, “We should go.”


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