CHAPTER 25 OF THINKER TRAITOR SOLDIER SPECTRE
Nihlus took a long shower. Real long. Half an hour, or more. It didn’t matter, while they were docked, Saren had said. They’d be leaving soon, though. They’d talk about the details later, he said. He mentioned the name of the place but Nihlus had forgotten it within five seconds. His mind was all jumbled up. He couldn’t recall that tune that had been on constant replay in his head for days, and he struggled to keep track of the damnedest things. Like whether he’d already washed under his crest or not. He looked at the soap dispenser, and—
Eventually, Saren had peeled him off and sat him down on the only chair in the room. The shakes were pretty bad, but he didn’t care. He had questions, so many questions! Only, all his language had slipped away. So he just sat there, gaping around at… his new home.
The soap. It was there. What was he…? Oh, right. Wash under the crest. It had a gentle minty aroma. But that wasn’t it. Every item in the tiny bathroom was a Palaven rain pine suspect until thoroughly sniffed. In his current state of mind, he’d forget about it by the time he’s out of the shower. But he’d be reminded of it as soon as he found himself near Saren again. Which would be daily now. Spirits.
Saren had made him tea. Tea! Nihlus hadn’t had tea since he had left Cordis. Mother used to keep it, but Father never developed the habit and after a while, she quit it too. This was unlike anything he had tasted before, however. It was bluish and bubbly and bitter. It created strange sensations in his mouth. But after half a cup, the shakes had stopped.
They spoke about Thadon then. Saren had a way of saying much in very few words. Not Nihlus, though! Once prompted, he repeated the entire conversation with Thadon down to the letter. With only a few embellishments, honest. Saren listened without interrupting, until at last, Nihlus had said, “He thought it would make a fine learning experience.”
“And?” Saren said. “What did you learn?”
Even in this brand new context, it took Nihlus a while to shake off the resentment and think about it in earnest. It was hard, but he did it. For Saren.
“Well,” he said, “that pretending to be stupid is an incredibly powerful position in our culture.” He had left that line out from his retelling. He blushed, repeating it now.
But Saren seemed to like it. He nodded thoughtfully. “Something to keep in mind when we encounter extraordinarily ‘good turians’ in the future.”
Saren looked at Nihlus and sipped his tea. “Anything else?”
“Yes, sir. That I’m a stupid jarhead who’s easily manipulated.”
Saren didn’t laugh. “You were blinded by emotion.”
“What? Because I hate Thadon’s guts? I don’t think—”
“Not for him.”
“Oh.” Theeka. “You think… I couldn’t see him clearly because he was… close to her?”
Saren didn’t say anything. He just sipped his tea.
It made perfect sense. For a moment, Nihlus entertained the monstrous idea that Thadon had gotten close to Theeka for the express purpose of blinding him. The timing was right. They only started seeing each other after Wolta. He would never know for sure, now. But perhaps that was for the best.
“How do you avoid getting manipulated?” he said after a while. “I mean, no one’s manipulated knowingly. You’re unaware of it by definition. How can you defend from that?”
“By knowing yourself,” Saren said quietly. He finished his tea and put his cup down on the work-bench. “You must create and maintain a tally of your weaknesses. And never let yourself believe that it is complete, or indeed, finite. All mortal endeavors are flawed, and the inventory of the self probably the most.”
Nihlus stared at him, and tears welled up in his eyes again. That was some poetic shit.
“Matriarch Benezia,” Saren said. “From Mapping the Unknown.”
“Oh.” Nihlus felt irreparably stupid and even more ashamed of nicking Thadon’s line without giving him credit. On second thought, fuck Thadon. “Matriarch who?”
“Finish your tea,” Saren had replied.
Nihlus turned up the heat another notch. Had he…? Yes. The answer to all his personal hygiene questions was surely a resounding yes by now. He better got out before Saren came knocking on the door, imagining slit wrists, or who knows what. Young Spectre candidate drowns in the shower on his maiden flight. Or—oh yeah, he had a better one. Cadet commits suicide by drinking copious amounts of liquid soap after failing first evaluation. He chuckled, stepping out of the shower cabin. The ventilation fan droned at its maximum frequency but the vapor was thick enough to cut into cubes. He cast around for a towel, in vain. He’d forgotten to ask about that. How surprising.
After tea, Saren had given him a tour of the ship. The Virial. A something-class corvette. Nihlus had warned him right then and there that he’d have to repeat all those new words to him when he was a bit more himself. Saren said it didn’t matter, but Nihlus got a sense that it did. There was a mean-looking terrain vehicle parked in the cargo hold, but Nihlus only got a glimpse of it. The ‘this is off limits’ room must have been where Saren slept because there wasn’t a single bunk anywhere else.
Nihlus wiped the fog from the mirror. “Nihlus Kryik, Spectre candidate,” he said aloud, and laughed. No way. No way this was happening. It was some weird, lucid dream. Perhaps he’d inhaled some of the toxin from the Shithole—though they said it was engineered to target specifically krogan—and he was still in the jungle, doubled up in the bush somewhere, twitching and drooling, while the fight went on without him. He wiped more of the mirror. It wasn’t large, but it would do. Stepping back a bit, he could see all the way down to his waist. But of course, he had forgotten to bring his bag.
When they had gotten to the bridge, Nihlus was terrified that Saren would start explaining all the ship functions to him. Fortunately, Saren had run out of steam at that point too. Or something like it. It was as if someone had suddenly unplugged him. Like uttering another word would have sucked away at his very life. Nihlus inquired about the shower then, careful to ask only yes-no questions.
He opened the bathroom door and worried at the interminable expansion of the fog into the narrow hallway and further. The cold air that rolled in to replace it made him shiver. He was about to step out when he saw it. His bag was there, right next to the door. And—a towel. He picked it up, more convinced than ever that he was dreaming. It was large and heavy, a bit threadbare, with alternating lines of white and fading blue. Nihlus dived into it nose-first and inhaled. It smelled fresh and clean and it was the most thoughtful thing anyone had done for him since he had left home. The notion of what was happening to him threatened to overwhelm him again. The sheer size of it dwarfed stars and clusters and galaxies.
Now, now, Kryik, he censored himself. We had quite enough of that for the day, thank you very much. He draped the towel over his shoulders, grabbed the bag, and retreated into the relative warmth of the bathroom. The mirror needed more wiping. He used a corner of the towel, then devoted some undivided attention to unearthing his smallest, yet most valuable possession from the bag. It had been half a year since he had last refreshed his colors, and even then he had only done the face, because he hadn’t had the energy for the rest. The pattern was barely discernible below the neck.
Not that he needed to see it in order to paint it. He applied himself this time. Little by little, the frenzy of his thoughts and newly-formed memories quieted down and his mind emptied. He did the face last. A new man emerged, no joke. “Nihlus Kryik, Spectre candidate,” he said again. He didn’t laugh this time. It actually sounded pretty damn hot.
The engines came to life just as he was packing his things back. He went out shirtless, to let the paint dry. It was dark in the hallway, with only the floor lights on. An appetizing smell was coming from upstairs, but he resisted it and went to the bridge. He left his bag where he had found it, next to the bathroom door. The question of where he’d sleep and keep his handful of personal items hadn’t been broached yet. It didn’t matter. He’d happily sleep on the floor.
Saren was already strapped in the pilot chair. He glanced at Nihlus reflexively, registering the motion, and was about to return his attention to the preflight sequence, when he realized something was different. The surprise on his face was priceless.
Nihlus smiled. “You like?”
Saren took his time to study the fresh markings. His gaze felt like a physical thing, tickling Nihlus’s plates. “Did you design the pattern?”
“No, sir. My mother. She was an accomplished artist.”
“I imagine it takes quite a bit of artistry just to apply it.”
“Uhm… Yes, sir. I suppose it does.” In truth, Nihlus would never trust anyone else to do it. But he didn’t want to come across as pompous.
“Thank you, sir.”
Saren turned back to the controls. “Drop it, Kryik.”
“Saren will suffice.”
“Oh.” Ohh. Was that even legal? He could no more imagine casually saying ‘Saren’ than hearing Saren casually say ‘Nihlus’. Just thinking about it made him blush.
“Sit down and strap yourself in. We’re about to take off.”
Saren looked at him.
“Sorry, sir.” Damn. He laughed. “I’ll figure it out eventually.”
The passenger chair was behind the pilot chair, in the corner by the door. It looked like it had never been used. Once seated, Nihlus could only see a sliver of Saren’s profile. The interior lights went off and the western sky brightened in the viewports, a swat of rich orange with thin cobalt clouds. A deep tremor went through the floor when the thrusters fired. The world started sinking, and Nihlus relished the sensation of being pressed into the seat, kept in place, getting rooted while reaching skyward. Transplanted from the dusky jungle into cultivated soil where he might actually grow.
There was a brief spell of weightlessness as the Virial’s mass effect drive went through the calibration cycle. Nihlus struggled to keep his euphoria in check. They picked up speed, racing after the sun on a gentle upward slope. Craning his neck, Nihlus cold see Trodar receding into a doll-house, a toy-model, a miniature. Those clouds weren’t all that thin up-close. It took half a minute to tunnel through them and emerge above a golden cloudscape.
Nihlus gasped. “Holy shit. It’s beautiful.” He laughed, ignoring the treacherous tremble in his voice. “Never thought I’d say that about Invictus.”
Saren’s head turned by a few degrees to acknowledge, but he didn’t say anything.
“Oh! Oh, I know just the thing. Sir…” He swallowed and took courage. “Saren.”
Spirits, did that come out as husky as it sounded in his head?
Saren remained still. Only his hand, laid on the armrest, slowly curled.
“I’d like to read something to you. A short passage from this uh… book that I liked a lot.” Nihlus waved over the auxiliary control panel to his right to wake it up and typed in a quick extranet search. Movement caught his eye while he waited. Saren instructed the ship to cruise at current altitude. Perfect.
“It’s not terribly relevant,” Nihlus blabbed on, scrolling through the text to his favorite spot. “Except in that the author’s name sounds a bit like yours and…” There it was. “Well. It’s profound? I can feel its meaning—” he tapped his chest “—but I’d have no idea how to explain it.”
Saren looked at him.
“Yeah. I’m nervous again. Can’t blame me this time, though. This is… important.”
“Go on,” Saren said.
Nihlus straightened up in the seat and cleared his throat. His heart drummed as if he was about to perform for an audience of thousands. But his voice rang loud and clear and soon he forgot about the fright.
“And as God created man and woman, so too he shaped the hero and the poet or speechmaker. The latter has none of the skills of the former. He can only admire, love, take pleasure in the hero. Yet he, too, no less than the hero, is happy; for the hero is, so to speak, that better nature of his in which he is enamored, though happy that it is not himself, that his love can indeed be admiration. He is the spirit of remembrance, can only bring to mind what has been done, do nothing but admire what has been done. He takes nothing of himself, but is jealous of his charge. He follows his heart’s desire, but having found what he sought he wanders round to everyone’s door with his song and his speech, so that all can admire the hero as he does, be proud of the hero as he is. That is his achievement, his humble task, this is his faithful service in the hero’s house. If he remains thus true to his love, if he struggles night and day against the wiles of oblivion, which would cheat him of his hero, then he has fulfilled his task, he is united with the hero who in his turn has loved him just as faithfully, for the poet is so to speak the hero’s better nature, ineffectual certainly as a memory is, but also transfigured as a memory is. Therefore no one who was great will be forgotten: and however long it takes, even if a cloud of misunderstanding should take the hero away, his lover still comes, and the more time goes by the more faithfully he sticks by him.”
A long, peaceful silence ensued. Nihlus let the terminal go to sleep and folded his hands in his lap. They were shaking, but he felt calmer than ever.
Saren spun in the pilot chair and faced him. He regarded him a while before he spoke. “Do you fancy yourself the hero? Or the poet?”
Nihlus smiled. “Yes, sir.”
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The quote Nihlus reads is from Søren Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling”. The song he can’t get out of his head in several previous chapters is “Back to Black” by Amy Winehouse (he misremembers some of the lyrics).