CHAPTER 19 OF THINKER TRAITOR SOLDIER SPECTRE
This chapter mentions characters and events from Misfire Anon’s story The Other Beginning and was written under the assumption that you have read it. If you haven’t, please do so before you go on! Not only because it supplies crucial subtext for this and a few other chapters of TTSS, but also because it’s one of the best stories for Mass Effect ever written.
Sand crunched under Saren’s boots as he climbed the drawbridge and walked through the airlock. His own ship felt alien to him. As if he had been away for months, not one week. The stardock crew manager reported the Virial had been repaired, serviced and cleaned. Next to the damage sustained in combat, the Trodar engineers also took care of a small leak from the starboard coolant cell and replaced a depleted battery powering the internal clock. Remembering the Wisp, Saren hadn’t been able to hold back a smile.
He walked around, touching the familiar objects and breathing in the familiar air. The stardock crew had left everything impeccable. Compliments of Major Eraquis, the manager had said.
The promotion would come through soon enough. After receiving Theeka’s report about the Blood Pack ambush, the Major finally felt confident enough to take the many oddities in unit deployment, half a dozen harmful trade contracts and regular donations from Wortag’s company to the attention of the Cluster Primarch. He had been aware of the strange deployment pattern long before Saren helped Kryik discover it, since all the orders were relayed through his office. Yet even now, he only acted because he reckoned he could rely on the support of a turian Spectre.
As Kryik’s CO, he was well within his rights to take all the credit for locating the Shithole and uncovering overwhelming evidence of long-lasting and deeply rooted collaboration between the IIC’s top brass and the Blood Pack. Neither Kryik nor any one of his men were mentioned in the Major’s final report. He mentioned Saren just because he needed him to sign it off. And Saren had signed it off. He had no illusions about changing the policies of the turian army. There were better things for him to invest his time and influence in. But he made his will known in no uncertain terms about how the service Kryik’s squad had rendered him was to be rewarded. And it better be, by the time there’s a Colonel Eraquis at the head of the Invictus Legion.
Over nine hundred messages awaited his inspection. He hadn’t checked them since the first day in the jungle, when he’d filed the report to the Council from Lomera. They could wait a little longer. Being unavailable was a luxury he could afford so very rarely. He pealed off his armor, cleaned his weapons, took a long shower and put on some comfortable civvies. He made tea and sipped it in silence, looking out the commons viewport. The slow, methodical traffic of military planes setting down and taking off whipped up clouds of orange sand, and then the wind patiently layered it back on the runways.
With a heavy sigh, he turned on the conferencing projector. Scrolling past the three dozen more recent messages, he played the one from Baratus.
“Saren.” The life-sized holo of his old friend gazed steadily at the camera. “By the time you see this I’ll be gone. You will have learned of my deeds, or misdeeds, as it may be. Will you have judged me, as surely everyone else has? It has been too long since we were… close. I cannot, and do not presume to know you now. Does anyone? Life of a Spectre must be lonely.
“Mine certainly has been, these last fifteen years. I suspect it will be doubly so for what remains of it. Even then, I didn’t know you well enough to be sure if you understood the depth of my loss. First, when the Temple fell; and then, once more, when you left. Both times, I was the one to inflict it on myself, for the greater good. I died for the cause that year, Saren, not once but twice.
“And what did I get for it? Hm? What was my reward for making the ultimate sacrifice? A retirement plan at the age of forty. And when I complained—a year of compulsory R&R, pending re-evaluation. And when I kept complaining—obligatory therapy. In retrospect, I should have done that myself. It helped me find a measure of peace. And it allowed me to stay in active service. With a desk job.
“You probably know by now that everything I told you when we first met in Hierote was the truth—just not the whole truth. I was a ‘special consultant’ on the board for decommissioning capital equipment with the military intelligence, since the dismantling of the Relentless made me ‘uniquely qualified’. Pfff. A grand-sounding title with little to no responsibility or power. It took me years to have my access level upgraded to the second-lowest security tier, and even that happened only because Tylena Corix, who had been a Sargent Major under my command on Palaven, became head of the division. It was only worse in internal affairs. Boards, committees, endless meetings with meaningless voting to select members of other boards and committees. I don’t think I was a part of a single thing with even an atom of significance in the six years I was forced to waste there.
“I considered contacting you. Asking you to put in a good word for me. Help me get a position with some damn agency. I considered it almost daily. But I couldn’t get over my pride. It would’ve sounded like I was asking you to return the favor, and I’d have rather died and rotted under a pile of paperwork than have you think that.”
There was a long pause, and Baratus studied his feet. Saren stood still, barely breathing, a dull ache in his chest.
“Instead, I got contacted by Wortag. I had ample dealings with him during my time with the MI. For all I knew, he was a legitimate businessman, and if MI had any knowledge to the contrary, they didn’t care. He bought everything he could lay his hands on, from ships to utensils to outdated intel. More importantly, he was happy to sign a receipt for ten barrels of window-washing fluid and actually take one case of toxic waste. Such transactions are often necessary to keep the records straight. You know how it works.
“He said he’d been lobbying for larger investments into levo-industries on Invictus for some years and managed to make some influential friends, and if I was interested, he could find me a top-brass position, since we worked so well together in the past. I was reluctant at first. What would it entail, I asked? What did he expect in return? But when I learned I could become the General of the Invictus Legion, all my reservations fell off.
“You know I was raised on Invictus, right? Doesn’t make it any less of a cesspool, even in my eyes, but I saw it as a sign. I could do good on Invictus, Saren. That is why accepted Wortag’s proposal, not because I missed being in power. At the head of the Legion, I could fix things. Make it a better place. This precious dextro world, condemned to rot because the Hierarchy is too busy policing Council space to properly nurture its own colonies!
“And I did do some good here. Quite a bit of it, if I do say so myself. For the first time in a hundred years, the economy is showing growth. There were more settlers in the last year alone than in a whole decade before. Off-world companies are starting to invest in industries and services and the cities have never seen a lower crime rate.
“It came at a price, of course. Mostly it was little things. No worse than what’s done daily on other colonies and even Palaven to keep things running smoothly. Arranging for Wortag’s company to win bids, inventing compulsory services that required his products, maintaining double standards. You know how it goes. Naturally, one of the conditions was that the IIC would stay out of the jungle. That we should by all means shut down illegal mercenary operations—except the Blood Pack’s. I drew a line at slave trade, and he agreed. By the time I learned the Blood Pack was smuggling slaves by the hundreds anyway, I was already dug in too deep to back out.
“When you came… Well. After the initial shock, I had a choice to make. I could’ve served you Wortag, the Blood Pack, and this Okeer character on a platter. I considered making this confession then and there and putting myself at your mercy. Perhaps you’d have been willing to look over my transgressions, since they have always been in the best interests of Invictus and the Hierarchy, and allow me to keep my honor. But like I said, I cannot presume to know you anymore. Perhaps you would have made an example of me. Dragged me through court-martial and all that comes after with full media coverage. Maybe you would’ve had me executed me on the spot for treason.
“Instead, I chose to let it play out. With you in the jungle, I was at liberty to arrange for a quick exit, should it become necessary. There was a small chance you’d find your target and complete your mission without stumbling on any of this. That was the outcome I hoped for. But I was prepared for the other outcome as well. Had Wortag managed to kill you, things would’ve gone back to normal.
“And so, at last, I arrive to the main reason I wanted you to hear my side of this story.” He looked straight at the camera again, and somehow the holo was perfectly able to transmit the intensity of his stare and make Saren’s heart twist. “I want you to know that my only regret… is that I betrayed you. A better man, a braver man, would’ve told you all this when we met and then put a bullet in his brain. I regret not being that man anymore.
“Farewell, Saren, old friend. I doubt we shall meet again.”
“Farewell,” Saren whispered, a minute after the holo had blinked out of existence. His eyes stung and he closed them. Deep within his mental vault, the seals on a compartment failed and memories spilled out, as inconsequential and insuppressible as water from a dropped glass. The floor of skulls in the dungeons beneath the Temple. The monstrous thing Desolas had turned into. Those eyes… the lights under the skin… that precise shade of blue.
He had been eighteen, with barely a few combat missions under his belt. He wasn’t even the leader of his cabal, and it was only through Desolas’s nearly limitless wartime authority that he had been assigned to his security detail. But Saren certainly didn’t partake in that authority. The orbital bombardment he called for needed the authorization from the Primarch, and could only be requested and executed by someone way above Saren’s station. By the commander of Palaven’s Spaceborne Legion. General Malivian.
It had been early summer. By late autumn he was on Menae, starting his Spectre training, with barely a thought spared for the man who had set him on that path, one of Desolas’s best friends—and one of the very few true friends he had ever had. Tucked safely away in a compartment labeled do not open, together with that night in the Elanus tower, the crowd, the drink, the overwhelming gratitude. The…
He sniffed and straightened up, looking around. Things in the vault were shelved for a reason.
A finger of cold tea remained in his cup. He went to the kitchen to wash it out.