CHAPTER 10 OF THINKER TRAITOR SOLDIER SPECTRE
Nihlus could swear they’d been standing motionless for entire minutes while disconnected, dislocated thoughts bounced around in his head like those last few crumbs of cereal in the carton, refusing to get out through the designated opening in the corner despite all the shaking. What the hell had just happened? Had it happened? He considered pinching himself to make sure. According to human fiction, it was supposed to wake him up in case he was asleep down in the camp, having the craziest and most vivid dream of his lifetime. But would he want to wake up?
He had finally remembered what that scent was. Saren’s underweave was saturated with it and Nihlus had almost fainted back there on the stairs, when recognition kicked in with all the grace and moderation of a charging krogan. Palaven rain pine. Not that Nihlus had ever been on Palaven or knew what an actual rain pine smelled like. But he knew this scent. It had been the plate-balm Dario wore that summer, in anticipation of receiving his colors and getting admitted among the grownups.
And then that dreamlike conversation. And Hallori, of all things. There had been a moment, about midway through the exercise, when the world faded out for Nihlus, the way it had used to, sometimes, when he had been a youth with a bright future, practicing for the great competition that was to change his life, and he trusted Dario, and himself, enough to let go, to turn off his brain completely and just flow with it. It had only lasted a few seconds now, and it had been brought on by the turmoil in his head, not by trust and confidence. But it had happened, and it conspired with the perfume to trigger a fallout of long-repressed memories and feelings.
Nihlus gasped for air.
Saren nodded, as if there had been some communication. And perhaps there had, because he walked back to where his stuff was and returned with a bottle of water. He drank like he had been starving for days, but at last he handed the bottle over.
“Thanks,” Nihilus said. Turned out he was just as thirsty. And by the time he finished the water off, he had mostly managed to piece himself together.
Saren cleared his throat. “The reason I called you here…” he paused, staring at something to the left of Nihlus, as if he couldn’t remember. Then he brought up his omni and scrolled down a long listing. “I’ve been skimming through the logs from the Wisp. The name you mentioned last night—it came up at the top of the message stack.”
Nihlus took a deep breath, marshaling his forces. The context gap stretched halfway across the Galaxy but he would bridge it, yes, sir. Last night, on the Wisp, he must have been blabbing about… “Wortag?”
“Tell me everything you know about him.”
“Oh.” He laughed. “That might take a while, sir. I thought you’d want to move out ASAP.”
“Welcome to the conversation, Kryik. Move out—where? There’s nothing here to indicate the location of the Blood Pack base. They only mention the river and something called—” he scrolled some more—“the Claw.”
“Ah.” Nihlus nodded. “It’s a rock formation north of here, easy to spot from the air. In fact—” He walked over to the north edge of the floor and pointed through the opening in the foliage. The Claw looked more like a knuckle from here, but it still stood out. “They probably told Okeer to eject when he sees it.”
Saren followed him and squinted at the distant landmark. “That can’t be more than ten klicks away,” he said. “The base must be near as well. And you were searching this area for it.”
“Yes, sir. But I’ve got next to nothing to show for it. The best I can do is a fifty-klick radius from the crash site, based on how long the gunship took to get there, and assuming it flew directly from the Shithole.” It was the most useless estimate ever. Why did he have to mention it? It had no place outside his tiny, stim-starved brain. Stupid, clumsy, strung-out—
“Shithole.” Saren’s left mandible twitched. “Appropriate. How long to search an area that size?”
“Ugh. Weeks. In good weather.”
Saren turned to look at him with a measure of that cold, hard intensity Nihlus remembered from their first meeting in Hierote. “Weeks? I don’t have weeks. If Okeer made a deal with them, they’ll smuggle him off-world within days.” He turned off the omni and squared his arms on his hips. “Is there no faster way to search? Imagine you had all the resources you could possibly need. What would it take?”
Nihlus had no trouble imagining it. He’d done it countless times to no avail. “There’s no helping it, sir. Mercs are crafty. They use sophisticated camo to hide from satellite surveillance, so you can’t see them from the air. You can’t fly a plane under the trees, and you can’t drive a tank over the swamps. Some mechs can navigate the jungle in good conditions, but larger predators mistake them for prey and take them down. We lost entire fleets of drones that way. And those that survived never reported anything of use so the HQ stopped requisitioning them after the last budget cut.”
Saren stared at him incredulously. “You could deploy more than one unit.”
“You could, sir. But landing troops in strength would not go unnoticed. You’d risk scaring them off and losing the opportunity for a surprise attack. Mercs are very quick to abandon their lairs: they just leave everything, and everyone non-essential, behind. And launching a large-scale covert operation would take considerable preparations, which again means considerable time. Plus, it would present challenges of its own. IIC has only four spec-ops units and two are already in the area.”
“IIC,” Saren snapped, spitting it out like a curse. “What a joke. This could never happen on a proper turian world.”
Nihlus winced. If Saren thought Invictus so bad, whatever would he think of Cordis? Would he despise him for it like so many “proper turians”? Saren certainly seemed like the type to despise a great many things.
“So, Kryik. Start talking.”
“Yes, sir.” Nihlus swept the sweat from the back of his neck. Where should he start? Standing here, speaking with Saren Arterius almost as an equal, seemed even more surreal than the Hallori exercise. Just minutes ago. Had it really happened?
“When I got transferred here, two years ago, I was recovering from a spine injury and they gave me a desk job. As Thadon’s secretary. You remember, Major Eraquis? Well, at about the same time, there was a change of command; it’s when General Malivian took over the IIC. He had many new ideas and one of them was to upgrade the core VI, which had been online forever. The upgrade was near the end when I started, but there were still all sorts of problems because of it—whole subsystems going offline for hours, the comm buoy link was erratic, it was a mess.
“Anyway, with half the workstations down half the time, a lot of files went through my hands, going from floor to floor on data pads. Of course I read everything I had the clearance for. I was bored out of my fucking mind, riding that elevator up and down twenty times a day. And, well, one of the files happened to be a weapons delivery contract—with Forinthia.”
Saren’s eyes narrowed. “That’s in Hegemony space. There’s nobody on Invictus with the authority to export weapons to the batarians.”
“That was my first thought as well—but I was in no position to make sure. I had about the lowest clearance level necessary to traverse the building.” He snorted. “Haven’t made much progress on that account in the meantime.”
“You were right. Nowadays the Council might override Hierarchy policy, but two years ago the Hegemony was under level four embargo. Not even the cluster Primarch could have authorized that.”
“And imagine the credits one could make selling guns to them anyway.” Nihlus smiled nervously. “No competition, no quality assurance, you just lean back and name the price. The in-between company was called ‘Stellar Wind Trading’ and their public records turned up clean like quarian teeth. I tried digging deeper, but the list of main share-holders was about the best I could do without raising flags. And guess who owns the good old forty nine percent.”
“Why didn’t you report this?”
“I did, sir. I told the Major about it right away. He dismissed it and said it wasn’t my place to run checks on upper tier contracts.” Nihlus swallowed back the bile. It was incredible that this could still upset him, two years later. “The contract was mislabeled as on-premise, and the Major, being the sort of man who puts a lot of stock in rules and regulations, simply re-labeled the file without even looking at it. It wasn’t my place to read it and it wasn’t his place to read it, so it didn’t exist.”
“Ah, yes. A ‘good’ turian.” To Nihlus’s momentary amusement, Saren made air-quotes with his fingers. Then he raised a browplate, thinking. “Perhaps he was in on it? You should have gone to Baratus directly.”
Nihlus sighed. “I was new, and I had a very bad record dragging me down as it was. I’ve done so many stupid things before. I thought I was being smart for a change, you know? Keeping my head down and my mouth shut. Besides, when the Major re-labeled the file, I could no longer access it. Just imagine the General, sitting for half an hour, listening to some random trooper blabbing about conspiracy theories.”
Saren turned on his omni again. “The logs put Wortag in direct connection to the Blood Pack. No legal front can withstand that kind of evidence. I’m forwarding the relevant parts to your omni.”
Nihlus touched his vacant left wrist. “What for? None of this helps us find the Shithole.”
“Don’t you want to take him down?”
“Me?” Nihlus laughed. “You’re joking, right?”
The colorless eyes watched him, so steady he could observe his squirming reflection in them in all its inglorious detail. Saren wasn’t joking. But what was he saying?
Nihlus shook his head. “Even if it is evidence enough… Wortag has his paw over more than eighty percent of all levo-imports. He has shares in every major offworld company doing business on Invictus. Everybody knows his credits keep the planet turning. There’s simply no authority here ready to go against him in earnest.”
“Is that so?”
“Well, I suppose the cluster Primarch…” His words died out as the realization sank in. Nihlus laughed again. “Right. You’re here.”
“I told Baratus I wasn’t here to police Invictus,” Saren muttered, gazing toward the Claw again. “But it looks like I may have to. And you’ll help me.”
Nihlus became aware that the drumming of his heartbeat was visibly shaking his ribcage. Escorting Saren and doing his bidding was cause enough for excitement; the notion of collaborating with him on a case of this magnitude, even in the most trivial of capacities, was overwhelming. Nihlus snapped to attention. “Yes, sir. Absolutely. Anything you need.”
If Saren told him to jump off the edge right now, he’d do it with a smile of gratitude. But Saren only twitched his mandibles. “Stand down, Kryik. We’re not on parade.”
“Yes, sir.” He widened his stance and clasped his hands behind his back. And then pinched his left hand with his right, hard enough to bruise. Ouch. Nope. Not a dream.
“You realize what this means, don’t you?”
Nihlus took a breath for an immediate affirmative, then shut his mouth with a click. It was a hugely broad question and all kinds of possible meanings popped up in his mind all at once. That I finally have a chance at life? That you’ll put in a good word for me in your report? Or even—oh, Spirits—recommend me to an ST&R recruiter? He searched Saren’s face for clues, but Saren let on nothing. It wouldn’t be about Nihlus, though, would it. That was just his self-centered, wishful thinking. It had to be something about the mission, something that actually mattered. Something about Okeer, Wortag, the Blood Pack…
“Oh.” Ohh. “If someone in the HQ is working with the Blood Pack—”
“—then the Blood Pack knows we’re looking for Okeer.”
“So much for our surprise attack.”
“Prey we don’t get surprised ourselves.”
“What?” Nihlus wanted to laugh but found he lacked the confidence. “They wouldn’t dare, sir.”
No merc org had enough firepower and manpower to openly challenge the turian army, not in Council space. Not even on Invictus. There had been precious few engagements between the IIC forces and the Blood Pack in the years of Nihlus’s service here and they had been either raids or chance encounters. He had never heard of a military unit getting attacked by anything other than wildlife. It was insane to even contemplate it.
But Saren obviously contemplated it. His mandibles flicked impatiently. “It’s what they want you to think. Let me guess.” He took to pacing to and from the edge, glancing at Nihlus sideways. “They conduct their business quietly under the cover of the jungle? They run and hide if discovered and never attack on their own? Minimal loss of life and equipment when an armed conflict does occur?”
“Uh… Yes, sir. Pretty much.”
“While no one knows where, how many and how well equipped they are. Convenient, isn’t it?”
“You think… it’s all set up that way? By the… traitor?”
Saren stopped, turning to face him. “If your intuition is correct, it’s nearly a certainty. Such an arrangement would be extremely lucrative. Wortag and his collaborators might take significant risks to prevent a Spectre from ruining it. And making one squad disappear in the jungle isn’t even that much of a risk.”
“Not this squad.”
He braced for some reproachful remark as he realized just how overconfident that must have sounded. It became hot all of a sudden and sweat trickled down his neck. Nervous tremors went through his muscles. It was way past his usual time for the day’s first shot of stims.
But Saren just hummed thoughtfully. And when it became obvious he wouldn’t say anything, Nihlus spoke again.
“Either way, sir, we should move out ASAP. If someone’s after us, this would be the first place to look. Unless—” He glanced through the north wall down at the overgrown path that had once upon a time had the ambition of becoming a street, and recalled the layout of the skeleton settlement. He should have thought of it earlier.
“Unless we want to be found. Set up an ambush—”
“—take prisoners, make them reveal the location of their base.” Saren cocked a browplate, considering. “Not bad. But we might lose a lot of time lying in wait for an uncertain prize.”
The compliment made Nihlus’ heart leap. “Yes, sir.” Having failed to keep the flutter out of his voice, he cleared his throat and wrung his hands into a painful knot to keep himself from grinning like an idiot.
Saren took no note, however. He looked around with a strange expression, almost nostalgic, and sighed. “Go, then. Get ready.”
At the top of the stairs, Nihlus was so pumped with excitement and enthusiasm he felt like he could fly. By the time he descended two floors down, he was exhausted.
The others had broken camp and only his bedroll remained, with his weapons and armor piled up on top of it. He cast around for Pan, but couldn’t see him. He’d totally beg for his stims right now. Kneel and lick his boots, whatever it took. Not that it would work. Pan had a chunk of rock in place of a heart. He had locked Nihlus out before, once or twice. On one of those occasions, Nihlus cried. For real. He sat on the soggy ground and tears streamed down his face and into his mouth, mixing with the funny-tasting rain of Invictus. Pan had laughed his ass off.
Someone approached him from behind while he was putting on his armor and he jumped a bit when he turned and saw Theeka. She was all dressed up—everyone except him was—complete with her asshole face, so Nihlus was on guard.
“What’s up?” He bent down for the thigh piece, never letting her out of sight. A few months back, following another disastrous attempt at sparring, she had bitten his hand when he reached to wipe the blood from her split lip. Which almost cost her a cracked mandible. They hadn’t spoken for a week after it.
“You were up there for an hour.”
“Yeah?” The seals on the right were all accounted for. He couldn’t remember if he’d checked the left, so he did it just in case.
“What were you doing?”
The Spectre needed to blow off some steam, the dickhead in him wished to say. At the same time, another part of him wished it had been true. Either way, it was a bad idea. They were heading into danger and didn’t need stupid distractions.
“Tried to figure out where to go next.” He picked up his chest-piece. “Help me?”
She wrinkled her nose at him, but lifted the back piece and held it for him while he sealed it up.
“So, where are we going?”
“To investigate the Claw.”
The bottom left-hand seal was acting up again. Nihlus scratched and poked at it in vain. He couldn’t reach it with his right hand.
“For fuck’s sake,” Theeka said. “Suck it up.”
Nihlus grunted, murmuring his usual complaints about shitty standard issue suits under his breath. They were supposed to get replacements yearly, but everything moved at half the normal pace on Invictus, so this was the same suit he had gotten upon arrival. And it was getting tight. Sure, he had gained a lot of muscle mass due to high gravity, but the problem had nothing to do with his body composition. It was about his proportions. As embarrassing as it was, he was still growing.
He obediently sucked his stomach in, and Theeka forced the front and back parts closer until the seal clicked.
“Thanks.” He relaxed, readjusting to his second skin. “I’m uh… sorry I went so hard on you earlier.”
“Fuck you, Nihlus.”
But she was no longer angry. Her voice was the kind he imagined she would use one day to say, fuck me, Nihlus. And Spirits, was he ready and willing. But not while she slept with Thadon. Ugh.
“I wouldn’t mind sparring more often if you weren’t so intent on, you know, killing me.”
Even as he spoke, his thoughts drifted back to his exercise with Saren. He had tried to seduce Theeka into Hallori, but she wouldn’t budge. It wasn’t direct enough, she said. She wanted to break bones, not learn elaborate choreographies to avoid it. Never mind that the rate of fatal accidents was ten times as high in Hallori as in any of the other martial arts. Or that it was what allowed Nihlus to excel at those other martial arts with so little effort. Theeka wasn’t the type to look far into the future.
“You really didn’t see him?” she said.
“Hm?” He turned around. “See who?”
“Don’t play stupid. Him. The Spectre. While we practiced.”
“Nope.” He picked up the shoulder guards and squeezed one between his legs while he fixed the other. Theeka seemed unconvinced, so he deadpanned and recited: “No, I really didn’t see him. Why?”
Theeka chewed her mandible. “What Pan said. I thought you stomped on me to show off. And it got to me. Big-time.” She coughed and looked away.
Nihlus busied himself with the other shoulder, considering his options. That was almost an apology. An admission of weakness, and it touched him deeply. Theeka didn’t crack open her emotional cocoon often. He wanted to grab her and bury his face in her neck. But he had to stay cool, or she’d reset right back to hard-mode.
“Pan’s an asshole,” he said, going for the tried and true strategy of blaming someone third. “And anyway, if I knew he was watching, I’d trip over my feet and break both my arms or something. You know better than anyone what a trainwreck I am when I’m trying to impress.”
“Ah-ha! So you admit you’re trying to impress him.” She pointed a finger at him with mock accusation, trying, and failing, to keep a straight face. Was that a blush coming up her collar?
“Well, yeah.” His armor was assembled. Only weapons remained. “You should be, too. He’s friends with the General. I bet he could get you into Space Corps with a flick of the mandible.” Unlike your boyfriend.
Theeka picked up his gloves and toyed with them while he slotted his sniper rifle on his left, and his assault rifle on the right. “And what are you hoping for?” she said softly.
A damn good question, that. Let’s see. His wishes soared sky-high and beyond for sure, but hope required belief. Feasibility. Best he could hope for was… a commission? Or, ok—a promotion. Eh. Who was he kidding.
“Keeping my job would be nice.”
She started to say something, but suddenly there was commotion all around them. Duon and Farril came down the western stairs, engaged in a lively discussion, and Pan got in from the balcony. Nihlus waved at him with his most innocent smile, and made a begging gesture. Just in case. But Pan just rolled his eyes and turned to say something to Lantar, who followed him in. Mirene appeared at the fire-escape exit and squared her hands on her hips for weren’t we supposed to move out ASAP? And then everyone froze for a moment when Saren came down the eastern stairs and swept the room with his targeting lasers.
“Stop drooling,” Theeka said. She nudged an elbow in his side with enough force to send him stumbling. “And don’t forget your bedroll.”