Betrayal

CHAPTER 15 OF THINKER TRAITOR SOLDIER SPECTRE

Nihlus awoke to the sounds of hurried steps and shouting. He jumped up, vision still blurry, hit the low ceiling of the tent and got a crest-blade stuck within a seam. Saren’s corner was abandoned and the tent was unsealed. He cursed and fumbled to free himself.

“Sarge!” Vezeer said, stepping by the tent. “You better come over here. Quickly!”

“What is it? Argh! Talk to me, damn it!”

But Vezeer was already gone. Nihlus yanked, and something tore, but he was free. He crawled out on all fours and started stumbling in the dark after the sound of Vezeer’s quick-paced footsteps. Flashlights were dancing ahead. Still half asleep, he caught on every bush and branch on the way. Something heavy thrashed about, crunching twigs. It sounded like a predator struggling with oversize prey. Nihlus ran.

“Get off her, or I’ll shoot!” Pan cried.

“If you shoot, I’ll kill her. And then I’ll kill you too.” Saren was breathless, but loud and clear.

“Son of a…” The click of the safety switch on Pan’s pistol echoed through the dark, no doubt on purpose.

“What’s going on?” Nihlus said. Silhouettes of his men moved aside to let him into the circle. His jaw dropped as he took in the scene.

Saren knelt on the ground, naked save for the iridescent glow of his biotic barrier, clutching Theeka in front of him in a vicious choke-hold. Obviously there had been a struggle and obviously the thirty kilos of Theeka’s hard suit couldn’t tip the scale in her favor. She was digging frenetically into Saren’s arm, to no avail. Unyielding, corded muscle, it might as well have been a steel rod. Pan had his pistol trained straight at the back of Saren’s head. Across the way from Nihlus, Farril stood with his assault rifle at the ready, but pointed down. Mirene and Vezeer hadn’t drawn their weapons. Flashlights twitched from one face to another.

“Kryik. Order your men to lower their weapons.”

Nihlus made a quick calculation. Worst case scenario: Saren had gone mad from the fever and attacked Theeka for no reason. In which case he could snap her neck no matter what Nihlus did. But if he hadn’t gone mad, threatening him directly might push him to do something he otherwise wouldn’t. He didn’t sound like he’d gone mad. And it didn’t look like he was really choking her. He was just holding her put.

“Stand down,” he said.

“What?” Pan never took his eyes off Saren, but Nihlus could see them widen in disbelief.

“Do it!”

Pan’s breathing became so violent Nihlus could see his nostrils move. “Fuck!” He lowered his pistol.

“Saren, release her.”

“I don’t take orders from you, Kryik.”

The strange emphasis made Nihlus realize he’d addressed Saren by first name. A heatwave crashed into his face and he had to breathe in through his mouth. “Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.” He took a deep breath. “Will you please tell us what’s going on?”

Saren’s barrier abruptly disappeared. A show of good will? He turned by a few degrees to face Nihlus. The silvery eyes shone dangerously in the dark. “Your friend is a traitor.”

Theeka started thrashing, whimpering in the attempts to speak. Saren tightened his grip. A grimace of pain distorted her features and she stilled.

“Release her, sir. Please. So we can talk.” Nihlus was feeling the pressure. His heart was pumping like he was in the middle of a wrestling match himself.

“She’s not going anywhere until I find out who she was speaking to and what information she sent them.”

“Speaking to? What do you mean?”

“You’re testing my patience,” Saren snarled. “Take her omni and see for yourself!”

Nihlus exchanged a glance with Mirene, who shrugged. The request was reasonable enough. He stepped forward. But as he reached down to take Theeka’s hand, she started thrashing again.

“Calm down,” Nihlus said, trying to sound calm himself. He knelt on the soaked ground, facing Theeka and Saren behind her. Close enough to feel either one’s breath on his face. Saren’s impatient glare was a tangible force, pushing against his skin. “Theeka. Stop it. What’s got into you?”

She was defending herself. With each jerk to keep her arm out of Nihlus’s reach, his hope that this was all some silly misunderstanding sunk deeper and deeper. Why wouldn’t she allow it, if she had nothing to hide? Saren tightened his grip again, and she started to choke. Nihlus grabbed her hand but couldn’t keep her still.

“For fuck’s sake,” Mirene muttered and knelt next to them, forcing Theeka’s arm open.

Nihlus brought up her omni with a trembling hand. The rest of the squad shuffled behind him to watch. He glanced at Saren. “What are we looking for?”

“Messages.”

Nihlus tapped the icon and stared into the incriminating thing as the night turned darker by a solid shade. “A call to Hierote,” he murmured. “Five minutes ago.”

“Whom did she speak to?” Saren asked.

“Major Eraquis.”

A hush fell over the gathering. Theeka seemed to have given up the struggle and kept her eyes closed. Nihlus glanced around at the others. They looked on with blank expressions.

“That’s not treason,” Vezeer said. “Is it?”

Pan stared from him to Theeka to Nihlus, then scratched his head. Farril shrugged. Mirene opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came out.

“She broke radio-silence,” Saren said at last. “She may have revealed our position to the enemy. And I suspect it wasn’t the first time.”

“Thadon isn’t the enemy,” Theeka croaked. “He’s our CO.”

Someone in the HQ is working with the Blood Pack,” Nihlus said.

Mirene was scrolling down the message list on Theeka’s omni. “Sounds about right,” she said. “There was one yesterday, just before we left Lomera. And one the day before. And one each day, far as I can see. Theeka, what is this?”

Saren released the choke-hold. He seized and twisted Theeka’s left arm behind her back, switching to a wrist-lock faster than Nihlus could say sex. Theeka coughed and wheezed.

“Speak,” Saren said.

“I’m no traitor,” she growled. “Thadon told me to report to him directly.”

“Was it an order?” Nihlus said.

“You know better than that. There weren’t any orders.”

“Explain,” Saren said, addressing no one in particular.

“They’re a couple,” Vezeer said. “The Major and Theeka. They message all the time. Like everyone else.”

Saren turned to scrutinize him. “Do your personal messages normally include location and mission status?”

“Uh… no, sir. Of course not.”

“It wasn’t messaging,” Theeka volunteered. “Sure, there was that too. But he wanted regular status updates. And yeah, I never got any written orders, but I couldn’t say no. I mean, why the fuck would I? He’s our CO.

“Since when?” Nihlus said.

“Since Wolta.”

“Spirits,” Nihlus whispered.

“Elaborate,” Saren said.

There was a pause before anyone replied. Everyone was busy calculating, just like Nihlus. Mirene was the first to speak.

“Wolta is an especially bad part of Hierote slums,” she said. “A bit over a year ago, the HQ got a tip that the Blood Pack were operating from an abandoned train station there. It was a big deal because everyone assumed the mercs ran large-scale operations from the jungle and the cities were clean. The HQ had to react immediately and the whole thing was a bit of a hodge-podge. We were deployed along with another spec-ops unit and we uh… distinguished ourselves, for better or for worse. Long story short, our orders were to hold a certain position but Sarge insisted we search another location instead.”

“It wasn’t on the map,” Nihlus said. He couldn’t help getting defensive. In retrospect, it had been the right move, but it had also been the worst move of his fucked-up career, and unlike most others, one to drag others down with him. “Somehow,” he made air quotes, “the IIC had outdated maps and there was a whole building in plain sight where there was supposed to be nothing. I just… had to.”

“Anyway,” Mirene continued, “it turned out to be a warehouse packed floor to ceiling with shipping containers that had obviously been used to transport slaves. With no actual slaves, mind you. Someone must have tipped the bastards off, because it sure looked like everything was abandoned in a hurry, what with the supplies left behind and all. But even so, this was huge. Before Wolta, no one had an inkling that slave trade was a thing on Invictus.”

“Yeah,” said Vezeer. “We all expected to get promoted or something, but instead we started getting these shitty assignments. No offense, sir,” he added.

“What do you mean, ‘shitty’?” Saren asked.

“Looking for the Shithole,” said Farill. His voice was rusty and he cleared his throat. “Sounds like a joke, but it isn’t. After Wolta they kept sending us to the jungle.”

“It all makes sense now,” Nihlus said, and everybody turned to him. “All the times we could practically see the mercs sneak just outside our scouting zones. All the times I had the feeling we were sent out to totally random locations. All the times I set up traps and not one worked! And I thought it was my fault. I thought I was losing my touch. And you,” he pointed at Theeka, “I told you about this and you said I was paranoid. Don’t you see? He’s been using you to sabotage us this whole time!”

Theeka burst in laughter. “Seriously? You are fucking paranoid. If Thadon wanted to learn our location or anything else about what we’re doing, all he needed to do was ask. Sure, he’s gonna ask me and not you, but that’s because you’re always a dick to him, not because of some sinister plot to mess with your head. You really think you’re that important?”

“That’s not it,” Farril said quietly. “He asked you for the intel because he’s not obliged to log personal messages. Anything he asks the Sarge goes through official channels and gets recorded.”

“He’s been tipping off the Blood Pack this whole time,” said Mirene. “It’d explain everything.”

“I don’t believe that for a second,” Theeka hissed. “You don’t know him. He’s a better soldier than any of you whining bitches.”

“That’s enough,” Saren said. “Was this the first time he asked you to break radio silence?”

“Fuck you, freak.”

Nihlus couldn’t see what Saren did, but it made her twist and cry out. He winced. He was supposed to be angry at her. To feel betrayed and injured and offended. And perhaps in time he would. But right now, the fear of escalation made him numb to everything else. Saren had the authority to execute her at a whim.

“Don’t make me be cruel,” he said softly.

“Ok, ok!” Theeka sobbed. “Let up!” It took her some time to recover. Her face was wet with tears of pain and anger. “It wasn’t the first time. There. Happy now?”

“What kind of information were you to report?”

“Encounters, plans, casualties. The usual. And anything unusual.”

“Such as?”

“Such as Nihlus deciding to ignore the objective in order to investigate whatever he thinks is more worth our while and then keep it out of his reports.”

“So I am that important after all.”

The disgusted look she gave him made him feel ashamed. “You’re an imbecile. He wanted to help you get over whatever brain damage makes you fight everything: your superiors, your men, yourself. Because he knows how good you are. He knows it better than anyone in the IIC.”

It was Nihlus’s turn to laugh, even though he felt no cheer whatsoever. “Yeah, right. He thinks so highly of me he wouldn’t trust me to tie his fucking bootlaces.”

“That’s exactly what you’d be doing if not for him. You’d be shining people’s shoes in the street.”

He gaped at her, as Thadon’s strange words, just before the General had walked into his office with Saren, came back to him. This is out of my hands, Kryik. I can’t protect you anymore. It wasn’t… true, was it? How could it be? It made no sense.

“Check if she sent anything else recently,” Saren said. “Documents, maps, scans?”

Nihlus nodded, grateful for a task he could focus on. He took Theeka’s hand again, now heavy and limp, and searched the comm log. “Doesn’t look like it.”

“Purge her omni.”

“Oh, come on—” Theeka started and abruptly stopped, hissing with pain.

Nihlus entered his CO override and executed the purge. “Done.”

Released without warning, Theeka almost fell on her face. She groaned as her left arm hit the ground beside her like a dead thing.

Saren stood up. A sheet of perspiration glistened on his pale skin. He was trembling. “Kryik. This location is no longer secure. Get ready to move out when this is resolved.”

“What do you mean, when it’s resolved? How do I resolve it?”

“I don’t care. Just get her out of my sight and out of my way.”

“Great,” Nihlus said, but Saren had already stalked away. “That’s just great.”

What was he to do? He counted his sadly diminished squad. Duon’s death was heroic; Lantar’s disappearance, unfortunate. But this… he didn’t know what the fuck this was.

“What do I do with you?” he muttered. “What the fuck do I do?”

“What can you do?” Theeka said, massaging her shoulder. “Execute me for treason?” She snorted, but she didn’t quite manage to mask the tremor in her undertones.

Vezeer said, “No one’s gonna execute you. Right, Sarge?”

“You can’t court-marshal me either. I was just doing what a superior officer told me.”

“Uh-huh,” Mirene said. “Bet you the Primarch’s crest-blade the Major would deny it if it came to court-marshal.”

“You don’t know shit about Thadon. Stop talking about him like you do.”

Farril paced around the perimeter. “And what if you’re wrong, huh? What if you don’t know him as well as you think. Maybe Lantar and Duon would still be here if you didn’t call in yesterday.”

“Let’s not go there, buddy,” Pan said. “It might look like this is all connected but we don’t know shit for sure. And why do I need to keep reminding everyone that we’ve been looking for trouble? For two years, not a day would pass without one of you thrill-seekers complaining how we’re not getting enough action. Well, we got some! What did you all think, huh? That it’s a game?” He stared them down one after another, but who could challenged him? He was right, and they all knew it. When no one spoke, he nodded and crouched behind Theeka’s back. “Lemme see that shoulder. Is it the same one?”

She sounded dangerously close to crying when she hummed an affirmative. Nihlus’s heart shrunk. Whatever was the truth behind this, he was sure she believed she had done the right thing. He couldn’t hate her.

“To be honest, I don’t see the Major being… dirty,” Mirene said, breaking a long, sulky silence. “He’s too… too…”

“Bland?” Nihlus offered. “Stupid? Boring?”

Theeka sniffed and spat out. By the sound of it, she missed his knee by centimeters. “You’re one sad character, you know that?”

“Alright, you two.” Mirene waved a hand between them. “Break it up.”

“Or get a room already,” Vezeer said. Everyone but Farril did their best to laugh.

Nihlus took a deep breath. “You can’t come with us,” he said. “And you can’t stay here. Gather what gear you need and start south. Walk for three hours and then call for extraction. They can pick you up from that clearing where we camped yesterday. If you get in trouble, turn on your distress beacon.” He mulled it over. If anyone could make it alone in the jungle, it was Theeka. This sucked but it could’ve been much worse. “If we weren’t two men down already, I’d send someone to go with you, but—”

“Yeah.” Theeka cleared her throat. “Guys, could you give us a moment?”

“Right,” said Pan. “Take care, big girl.”

Mirene tapped her good shoulder. “You’ll be ok. See you in a few days, yeah?”

Vezeer leaned from the other side and kissed her on the cheek. “Stay out of trouble.”

Farril turned around and walked away without a word.


For a while they sat in silence, listening to the screeching, scurrying and sighing of the jungle. It was almost completely dark now. Theeka was an indistinct gray shape in front of him.

“Thanks, I guess,” she said at last. “That could’ve ended a lot uglier. I thought he was gonna kill me.” She felt her neck with her hand.

“I wouldn’t have let that happen.”

“Yeah?”

Nihlus deadpanned in the dark. “Yeah, dummy. He was weak and unarmed. We were five against one. And I was close enough to knock him out with a single strike.”

It was true, all of it. But he just barely believed it himself. Saren’s performance in combat had been thoroughly intimidating yesterday, when he had been in even worse shape. And there was, of course, the matter of hesitation. If it had come to it, Nihlus would’ve probably been too slow to strike. Saren would’ve crushed Theeka’s windpipe and dealt with Nihlus with some biotic attack or another, and the rest would’ve battled him over their dead bodies. He shivered.

“I don’t think you could’ve,” Theeka muttered. “But sure. I’ll take what I can. I’m not gonna say I’m sorry, though. I don’t think I did anything wrong.”

“Yeah. Same.”

“What would you be sorry for?”

Nihlus snorted. “For not getting that room.”

She laughed a little. “Yeah. To be fair, we’d be one fucked up couple.”

“You think?”

“We’d end up hating each other.”

“Right. All the friend-zoning totally saved us from that.”

They both laughed now, but it didn’t last.

“I never told you,” Theeka said, “that I got a transfer offer, oh, some six months back. For the Space Corps. And before you say something to piss me off again, it came through Dinara’s sister. Thadon didn’t even know.”

Space Corps had been her dream, the way the ST&R had been his. “And you didn’t take it because…?”

She shuffled closer, almost chest to chest. “Because… You know Invictus counts as a level-two hazard post, right? Three years here are one year off my retirement age. It’s why I chose Invictus to begin with. And my previous post was level four, which is one-for-one. You know I’m 25. Two more years and…”

“What? Retire?”

“Well, yeah. What, you think I wanna do this for the rest of my life, like Vezeer, or your Spectre? Do you?”

Nihlus was no longer sure what they were talking about. “I don’t know. Leave the army… and do what?”

“Have a family?”

“Oh, man.” He laughed. “I thought we were having a serious conversation here. Family? In a few years? No way. Assuming… we’re talking about… us. Are we? No, never mind. Don’t answer that.”

“Breathe, Nihlus. Nice and slow. In… and out.”

This was no time for teasing. He threw a play-punch at her midsection, but she caught his hand. And held on to it.

“Besides,” he said, “since when are you into settling down and shit?”

“Since always. Not the way you thought about me, huh?”

Nihlus realized he was shaking his head. He wondered what else he was wrong about. “Guess not.”

“Why? Because I like to play rough?”

He swallowed. “You do?”

She laughed. “And there I thought we were having a serious conversation.”

It was good to laugh. But time was ticking. There was a chance they’d never see each other again. He had to know. “If this is how you feel about me… why aren’t you with me?” He squeezed her hand. “Why are you with… him?”

“Well, first of all, I like him. He’s smart, and classy, and mature. And he makes me laugh.”

Nihlus had to clench his jaw to stop himself from scoffing and making rude remarks. He had asked for it, after all.

“While you…” Her voice dwindled. “You drive me crazy. In every way, ok? You know you’re incredibly fucking hot. And—” She sighed. “So does the whole Legion.”

“Huh?”

“Oh, come on. Your exploits are legendary. You must’ve done every asari on the planet.”

“What? No. For one, I’ve never set foot out of Hierote. And there are only—”

“Yeah. And like three dozen people from the Corps.”

“You exaggerate.” Nihlus paused, fighting panic while trying in vain to estimate how many people he had actually been with on Invictus. Even if he had taken his day off every week, which he hadn’t, and gone out every time, which he also hadn’t, and how many weeks were there in a year? No way it could’ve been that many. “Two dozen, tops. And only if you count the one-night-stands. But what does it matter anyway? None of it was serious. Like, that thing with Iana was the closest it got to serious and you know how ‘serious’ that is.”

“Yeah, Nihlus—” She shook her head. “That’s the problem.”

“I don’t follow.”

“The only reason you have a thing with Iana is because she’s not really into you. However the fuck you two make that work. And the only reason you’re still interested in me is that I’m unavailable. Because I didn’t want to be one of your conquests, alright?”

He was speechless. He wanted to say, but you wouldn’t be! He wanted to say, with you, it’d be different. But she wouldn’t believe it. And he wasn’t sure he believed it himself.

“So, I stayed… waiting for you to grow up, I guess. But, you know what?” She came even closer and put her hands on his shoulders. Her breath warmed his carapace when she spoke. “Fuck that. You’re perfect as you are. Just not perfect for me, and I was wrong to want you to change. I get that now.” She lifted his chin and went on in a whisper. “Don’t ever change, Nihlus, for anyone but yourself. You hear me?”

She was so close. Close enough for their mandibles to catch. Close enough for their foreheads to touch. And they did, when he nodded, even though he had no clue what she was talking about. She leaned into it, and he closed his eyes, and the world collapsed into a whirlpool of joy and bitter regret.

And then she was gone.


When Nihlus returned to the tent, Saren was armed and dressed up, all but gloves and helmet. He was busy eating the fruit Nihlus had brought him in Lomera, a lifetime ago, and didn’t look up. Nihlus crashed on his bedroll and stared at his empty hands for a long time. The paint was starting to peel from the upper side of his left glove. The seals felt flimsy when he rotated his wrists. Likely no longer space-worthy, if they ever were. Infantry always ended up with scraps.

He could still taste her. But the warm pool of arousal in his stomach was cooling down, decaying into sadness. First Lantar, then Duon, now Theeka. Who was next?

He said, “I let her go.”

Saren grunted an acknowledgment. It wasn’t a satisfied grunt, or a dissatisfied grunt. Just a grunt. Some minutes passed before he finished with the meal and cleared his throat, calling for attention. Nihlus looked up through a haze.

“I can’t find my omni-tool.”

“Shit,” Nihlus said, clapping his forehead. “I’ve forgotten about that. No worries,” he hurried to add, seeing Saren’s browplates gather. “It’s safe. It’s with me. I uh… took it when you were unconscious and used it to set up that ambush.” He took the omni off his right wrist and carefully dangled it in Saren’s direction. “We uh… had to reset it so it’d take my input. But we didn’t touch any of your files.”

Saren snatched the omni, making Nihlus wince.

“Sir, I’m sorry. The Blood Pack was coming, and you were down, and Lantar was missing. It was either that or call for backup. And you sort of approved the plan earlier, so I thought—”

“Stop it.” Saren closed his eyes and took a deep breath, as if holding back a massive wave of annoyance. “Lower your voice. I have a headache.”

“I’m sorry,” Nihlus whispered, miserable.

After a while, Saren looked at him again. “You said you wiped out the whole unit.”

“Yes, sir.”

“So, no prisoners.”

“No, sir. I’m sorry.”

“Stop apologizing.” Saren’s voice rose and his unrelenting gaze bore into Nihlus like the tip of a knife. “Stand behind your decisions, even if they were bad. And I didn’t say they were. Besides—” he finally blinked and looked away—“you wouldn’t have been in the position to make decisions if I hadn’t failed to recognize the severity of my illness. It’s myself I’m angry with. Not you.”

Nihlus swallowed a knot. For all the reprimands he’d taken in service, be it plain insults or fair critique, none had ever affected him like this. He didn’t dare speak, fearing he might cry, and just nodded.

“I see you found my helmet and my pistol,” Saren said after a while. “And I won’t forget what you did, back in the woods.” It looked like he was struggling with something he wanted, or maybe didn’t want to say. Thanks?

Nihlus waited for several seconds, but it didn’t come. “Any time, sir,” he said anyway.

“Did you investigate the Claw?”

“Yes, sir.” Nihlus took a deep breath, grateful for a chance to give a positive answer at last. “We found a staging area just north of it. A small landing zone under holo-camouflage. The enemy tracks led right to it. They landed there and traveled to the ambush spot on foot. Had to fly back for more troops. Means they only have one standard transport, probably because the other landing zone is tiny too.”

“The Shithole,” Saren said. “Camouflaged the same way.”

“Yes, sir. And they can fly about freely because—”

“—someone’s supplying them with fresh IFF certificates.”

Nihlus nodded. Otherwise the AA installments would take their planes down. And everyone in the HQ operated under the assumption that the Blood Pack didn’t, couldn’t, fly planet-side. That they did their smuggling through civilian spaceports and only had ground-based supply lines. Supply lines Nihlus and his squad were supposed to track down. What a joke. He let out a bitter little laugh, and then it struck him.

“Wait.” He wagged a finger in the air, trying to get his thoughts together. “Wait.”

Saren waited for two whole seconds. “What?”

“I’ve got an idea. I think I know how we can find the Shithole. I don’t have access to this information, but with your help… If we can look into the Major’s command roster and see where he’s been deploying troops—”

“We can see where he hasn’t deployed troops,” Saren finished for him. He turned on his omni—and flinched when it lit up, illuminating the tent in a bright, aggressive orange. He kept it literally at an arm’s length while he logged in.

“Greetings, Agent Arterius,” the VI sounded, making them both jump. Saren grimaced and muted it. After a bit more fiddling, he managed to lower the brightness too and sighed with relief.

“Come,” he said, motioning Nihlus to sit next to him. It was no easy feat in the low-domed, cramped space. But after some awkward positioning, they managed to settle shoulder against shoulder. “Let’s see.”

“Ok… can you uh… plot drop-points for all regular and outstanding deployments during the last year?”

Saren picked through the options in an interface Nihlus had never seen before. It wasn’t turian army software. A silver winged sigil rotated leisurely in the top left corner: ST&R. The plates along Nihlus’s spine stood on end. The star-map zoomed in on Caestus, and then on the ponderous brown globe of Invictus, looking sickly, drab and dirty. Military landing zones lit up like a pair of loose necklaces twenty-plus degrees above and below the equator, with only a handful scattered between.

“Take a fifty mile radius around the crash site,” Nihlus said. Saren’s hand hovered reluctantly, then froze mid-air as Nihlus reached for the map himself. He zoomed in and scrolled westward until he found the Kirreneans, and then the Ibiss. “There. And we’re here.”

Saren initiated a search of the IIC database around the two waypoints. After a second, blue dots started popping up on the map.

“Add the scouting zone for each unit.”

“There,” Saren muttered. Nihlus nodded. On the map, a pattern was emerging, becoming more and more apparent with each additional point. It took the shape of… a ragged crescent, centered—

“North from here,” Nihlus said, impatient, and tapped the map to center the location for better view. Saren didn’t seem to mind the intrusion. He started another database search around the new location.

“Interesting,” Saren said as the dots started popping out again.  The overlapping scouting zones made an irregular circle around an area on the lowest slopes of the Allerleigh Mountains. About twenty klicks from where they were now.

“Can’t believe it,” Nihlus said. “That must be it. The Shithole.” He shook his head to try a fresh perspective, make sure his eyes weren’t deceiving him. “But… how do you suppose no one’s ever noticed this?”

Saren shrugged. “This isn’t a war-zone. Few high-tier officers have the time or inclination to run obscure statistics on routine patrol deployment. And even if someone did, this would mean little without other evidence. Which is again circumstantial without this.”

The Shithole suspect wasn’t the only place that stood out. “Do you still have the survey data I sent you on the ride from Hierote?”

“I do.”

“Can you layer it over this?”

With the corner of his eye, he saw Saren’s mandible flick outward. Amused or annoyed? Nihlus realized he’d been addressing him very informally and his face heated up. But Saren said nothing. He dragged the local map with Nihlus’s annotations on top of the one with the deployment pattern. On the south side of the Ibiss, several ‘holes’ between yellow scouting zones were filled in with his own recon data, plotted red. The slave village was the largest one.

He tapped it. “This is where Okeer landed.”

Saren panned the map this way and that, inspecting Nihlus’s handiwork, but whatever he thought of it, he kept for himself. He said: “If the Major knew about all your… extracurricular activities… why did he tolerate them?”

“Maybe it’s not him after all.” Nihlus bit his mandible. “But if it wasn’t Theeka’s report that gave away our position and heading from Lomera—”

“The Blood Pack could’ve assumed we would head for the Claw. It was the only landmark mentioned in Okeer’s communication with Wortag. And Lomera was an obvious starting point. You said so yourself.”

That… had not occurred to him. He was so convinced in his own theory, especially with recent events seemingly confirming it, that he never tried to consider any alternatives. But even if it wasn’t Thadon, only someone of same rank or higher could organize the evasive deployments. “You’re friends with the General. How well do you know him?”

“Well enough to trust him with my life.” Saren shifted, as if uncomfortable. “But nothing’s impossible. No one incorruptible.” There was a silence. “We might find further clues in the Shithole. How long to get there?”

“Hard to say, since I’ve obviously never been in that region. Fucking hell.” He cleared his throat. “Sorry, sir. If the terrain keeps improving, we could make it in a day and a half? Less, if we force it. But,” he tore his eyes from the incriminating circle on the map to study Saren’s tired face. “Honestly, sir, I don’t think you’re well enough to move out at all.”

“If we stay, we risk discovery. Now that we have a clear objective, another fight would be a waste of time and resources.” Saren rolled his head back and his neck popped. “We move out at once and proceed as fast as possible.”

Nihlus was once more the last to pack up. He took the rear and had Mirene walk point, with Pan and Vezeer flanking Saren, just in case. They passed Duon’s shallow grave on the way north. Farril paused to kneel by the headstone—a large white rock they had painstakingly rolled up from a nearby stream and etched with Duon’s name, rank, markings, dates of birth and death and the story of his sacrifice.

“He died to save our lives,” Nihlus said, putting a hand on Farril’s shoulder. Most men die for nothing. “We owe it to him to make the best of it.”

“Yeah.” Farril touched the stone with his forehead, sniffed, and got up. “Yeah.”


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