CHAPTER 7 OF THINKER TRAITOR SOLDIER SPECTRE
“Nihlus, is that you?” a familiar female voice called out from somewhere behind the wreckage.
At that, there was definite movement in the poorly lit growth on the other side of the clearing, and an un-helmeted turian head emerged into view. Nihlus got up and stepped out of cover, keeping his weapon politely pointed down.
“Nihlus, thank the Spirits it’s you,” Dinara said, going fully out of cover herself. Coming from one of the few surviving families from the first wave of colonization, she was short, bulky, and incredibly bossy. “I was afraid that damned torpedo blew you to bits.” She covered the distance between them in fast strides as she spoke, and touched the side of Nihlus’s helmet in a gesture of motherly affection. He smiled, but backed away as soon as he could.
“It sure looks like you were expecting someone else,” he said. The rest of both squads came forth from their hiding places and waved vaguely to each other. They were all formally stationed at Trodar, and Nihlus recognized more than a few faces. One of them was, in fact, intimately familiar. He tried not to stare.
“There’s too much going on under the trees tonight,” she said. “I had to be sure.” Her eyes were drawn to something behind him. He felt more than heard Saren approaching; his presence went in front of him like an electric field, tingling at the border of senses, invisible yet nearly tangible. Could it be his biotics?
“Where did that torpedo come from?” Saren said, directing it to nobody in particular.
“Who the hell are you?” said Dinara.
“Ah. Should’ve guessed. You people follow trouble like thunder follows the clouds. Or is it the other way around?”
Nihlus froze, expecting some humiliating rebuttal from Saren. None came. He didn’t even look at her, busy studying the wreck instead. “The Wisp fired it, didn’t she?”
Nihlus turned to follow their stares. The Wisp was sitting at an odd angle, her nose deformed beyond recognition and stuck a good few meters into the ground; the wings were burned to bare fuselage, and the midsection was charred and blackened. There was a prolate breach along the main seam running the top of the ship. Only the tail kept some of its hull plating and bluish paint. Nihlus thought he could see a part of a big asari letter ‘p’ under the smoke stains.
It was almost miraculous that the ship survived the descent in such a good condition. Judging from the shape of the wings, she was built for speed planet-side; surely she had reached a high velocity prior to impact. Nihlus looked up and around, and formed a theory.
“Must have grazed that ganut before hitting the ground,” he said, pointing up with his chin. The giant tree guarding the perimeter of the clearing from the north had lost much of its lush crown, including two hollow branches wide enough for a grown man to crawl through, torn off from the trunk.
Saren looked in the direction of his gaze, then back to the Wisp. He said nothing.
Dinara shifted from foot to foot. “Who cares how she got this way? What matters is, she still has power and weapons, and something that’s been jamming the hell out of all our equipment. If I called the shots, I’d just blow her to the sky and be done with it.”
“I need to get inside,” Saren said, ignoring her statement, though it was clearly intoned like a question.
“Well you obviously don’t need my blessing.”
Nihlus shot her a warning glance. But she didn’t catch it, and Saren was acting like she didn’t exist at all. “Get your techs to assist me.” With that, he started toward the ship in carefully measured steps.
“Yeah? Shall I get you a glass of wine and a back-rub too?” Dinara murmured behind his back. “Arrogant, entitled prick.” She turned to Nihlus. “What did you do to deserve such cruel and unusual punishment?”
Dinara was one of the few officers of IIC that Nihlus actually liked: for her courage and uncompromising attitude. Which had likely brought her to the pinnacle of her career prematurely. She could either stay there or decline; there was little hope for advancement. A situation marginally better than his own. They were both the sort of turian who would be better off not even hoping to climb past the first few tiers. But unlike him, she had a commission, a mate, and two children. A life to go back to after completing shitty missions. All he had were memories of failed ambitions.
He shook his head. “Lost control of the situation. Been told not to shoot, but shot anyway. Same old. I’m sure Thadon would’ve discharged me on the spot if not for that guy.” He cocked his head to indicate Saren. “So I uh… volunteered to escort him. Looked like the only way out, to be honest.”
“Out of the frying pan and into the fire,” she said. “That one’s bad news, I tell you. Watch your back, Nihlus, and don’t stick your neck out if you don’t have to.”
He made a non-committal noise in reply. Dinara would probably laugh her ass off if he was to tell her why he really volunteered for this mission. Spectres were the closest thing he had to coming-of-age heroes. You don’t miss the opportunity to walk alongside your hero, even if there’s no hope you could ever walk in his footsteps.
Mistaking his mood, she put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Don’t let them grind you down, buddy.”
Nihlus gave her a stiff smile. Why did he elicit this protective behavior in mature people? The ones who paid him a different kind of attention were always the restless, thrill-seeker types, like Theeka. And Iana.
He cast about as discreetly as he could manage. Theeka was sitting with Pan not far away. As fierce as she was in combat, she had a whiny streak when it came to injuries. Duon was standing next to them, conveniently looking his way. Nihlus pointed in Saren’s direction and signaled a silent order.
“Iana?” Dinara exclaimed, turning left and right. Everyone looked up and Nihlus cringed. Theeka’s features sharpened and when she looked at Nihlus, her expression was no longer worried. It was murderous. “Where the hell has she gone off to,” Dinara grumbled. She went for her earpiece, then cursed and tapped her forehead.
“Here she comes,” Nihlus said, struggling to keep from smiling. Iana was jogging over from under the starboard wing of the ship, where she had been busy using her wrench, or pretending to. She tried to avoid looking at him, but it didn’t quite work out, and when their eyes met, both of them cleared their throats in highly suspicious sync.
Their thing was an odd one. Per her declaration, which was supported by multiple witness accounts, she didn’t normally date men. But Nihlus was a lucky exception. Not that they were really dating, though. They arranged… wrestling matches. Iana was great at hand-to-hand, but unlike Theeka, she didn’t mind submitting to a superior opponent. Being a superior opponent, Nihlus suspected, summed up his sex appeal in this case, but he didn’t mind. They barely ever spoke outside their romps and only met when she called, which hadn’t happened in a long while. It suited him just fine. He wasn’t indifferent, though. It was nice to see her.
“Sorry, m’am,” Iana said, a bit out of breath. “I was just—”
“Never mind. Go see what the Spectre wants.”
“Over there,” Dinara said. She clicked her fingers in front of Iana’s face, treacherously turned toward Nihlus, and pointed at Saren and Duon.
“Yes, m’am.” Iana smiled apologetically, put her wrench on the pile of other equipment, and jogged away.
Dinara huffed. “What do you think he’s after?”
“Oh.” Nihlus shrugged. His guess would be that Saren wanted to download the logs from the Wisp’s VI. But it was impolite of Dinara to ask. Even if he knew, he’d be obliged to keep a lid on it.
Saren and the two techs were standing several meters from what could have been the hatch of the Wisp’s airlock, and there was far too much gesturing on top of their conversation for comfort. Nihlus nodded at Dinara and walked toward them.
The smell of burnt wood rose from the ground everywhere, but as he approached the wreck, he could also pick up burnt plastics, rubber and paint from the plating, as well as the cryo-foam Dinara’s men must have used to put out the fires when they arrived. Carbonated bits and pieces, mixed with shattered glass and assorted misc debris crunched under his feet. The Wisp must have packed some state of the art engineering to remain structurally sound even after losing her plating and diving nose-first into dirt. Nihlus wondered what she had been used for. Despite the weapons, she hardly qualified as a warship. She was too small to carry smuggled goods or people, and too large to be a racer. Some rich bastard’s pleasure boat? Would that krogan qualify as such? Nihlus itched to know more, but it wasn’t his place to ask.
Saren was turned away from him. “Don’t you have a spare?” he heard him say to Duon.
“Yes and no. I can change the hardware, but it’s the software that matters. I have things on my omni that even an esteemed Spectre such as yourself wouldn’t be able to find replacements for. With all due respect, sir.”
“Duon!” Nihlus said, mortified. Dinara’s informality wasn’t his problem, but the conduct of the men under his command was.
Saren didn’t appear to be fazed at all, though, as Nihlus saw when he stepped into the circle, squeezing in between him and Iana, who was flipping through flickering screens on her omni. If anything, Saren looked tired.
“Sorry, Sarge,” Duon said, deflating. “Sorry, sir. But without my omni, I’m about as useful as a plugged asshole.”
Iana chuckled, and even Saren’s mandible twitched, if only a little bit. Nihlus relaxed.
“What happened to your omni?”
“I don’t know. Bumped it one times too many on our joyride back there, I suppose.” He spread his mandibles to dismiss Nihlus’s concern. The silver of his facial paint reflected the distant lights, taking on a golden hue. “I’ll get it fixed, don’t worry.”
“Ok, I’ve got it,” Iana said. She was typing into the haptic interface faster than Nihlus’s eyes could follow.
“What are we doing?” he said.
“Trying to isolate the frequency of the jammer,” Duon replied. “That’s the first order of business if we’re to make any progress. The Spectre wants to get inside the ship.”
“Getting in won’t be a problem,” Saren said.
“You have the entry codes?” Nihlus said.
Interesting. Or maybe not. Nihlus found it difficult to imagine the level of access Saren must have wielded.
“Can’t you use the codes to shut down the jammer?”
“Not while my omni-tool is jammed, obviously.”
Nihlus shook his head. Idiot. But then he realized something didn’t add up.
“How come your omni works?” he asked Iana.
“It’s an antiquated piece of shit, that’s how. Like five generations behind the standard service stuff. Operates in a different range. I still get interference, but it’s workable.”
“Why would you carry such outdated hardware?” Saren asked.
“What Duon said, sir. Because I have shit on it that won’t work on newer models and can’t be replaced. Like this decryption thingie. Almost there. Almost…”
Duon stepped behind her to watch. His fingers were twitching, going through the motions.
“Let it run a few more iterations,” he murmured. “The closer you can get the better.”
“No shit. At this resolution, it’ll never converge. But fine, there, just for you.”
Saren clasped his hands behind his back and lowered his head. A gesture of patience? Impatience? Nihlus couldn’t read anything from his face.
“How come you didn’t do this as soon as you arrived?” he said to fill the silence.
“Uh… The jammer only kicked in an hour ago or so, sir.” She glanced at him over the top of the screen with a small, devilish smile. The yessir, nosir thing was… a thing, for her. Nihlus barely kept from reacting. “The ship is acting erratic… the VI probably malfunctioned but didn’t die, so it’s doing stuff at random when it can draw enough power… like auto-targeting anything large enough to be another ship. We started the scan immediately, but without a limit on the range, decryption can take hours. Good thing the Spectre could provide the limits.”
“You seem to know a lot about this ship, sir.”
Saren glanced at him, but didn’t offer an explanation.
“Gotcha,” Iana said, and made a triumphant jab into the interface. She tapped her earpiece then, and said, “We’re back in business, ladies and gentlemen.”
An echo of her words arrived through Nihlus’s earpiece with a small lag. Suddenly, there were orange lights flashing all over the clearing as everybody brought up their omnis, and the intercom was soon flooded with chatter. Duon and a few others pulled down the visors of their helmets for privacy. Nihlus did the same, and the first thing he saw on it was a request to switch to a private channel. From Saren. He took the call.
“I won’t tolerate questioning either.”
His voice was cold like dark space.
“Yes, sir. Sorry—”
The channel closed.
Imbecile. Moron. Retard. Fool.
Duon’s voice awoke Nihlus from an uneasy drowse. “Sarge? You better come over here.”
He sat up and surveyed the situation. Dinara was alert and keeping things tight. Neither Theeka nor Iana were around. He could just see them walking amiably away from the clearing to test each other’s hand-to-hand prowess with sharpened talons and bared teeth behind the bush. The local extranet would have a blast. Two women sustain heavy injuries in a duel over a homosexual man. Or, not to be so grim—After a ritual duel over a man, two women enter a committed relationship and adopt an elcor baby. An IIC official attending the adoption ceremony points out the stark contrast between reality and the malicious rumors of rampant discrimination in the turian army, perpetrated by the enemies of the Hierarchy.
“Sarge?” Duon called again.
“On my way.”
Nihlus stood up gingerly, stretched, grunted at sharp pain in his abdomen. He was still not completely healed and the nap made him feel even more tired than he was before. It had been a good several hours now since Hierote, he reasoned, and administered himself a shot of stims. Ahhh. Much better.
The many comings and goings to and from the Wisp had created a sort of a path cutting across the clearing to the airlock. They had had to dig to free the outer hatch, which was near the nose; and when Saren had unlocked it, they had had to dig through the debris on the other side. Nihlus slid down the trench to the airlock and went in.
The interior was in far worse shape than the exterior. Everything was charred by the fires, and the fine, silver powder from the fire-extinguishers gave the scene an odd, black-and-white quality, like some ancient still-pic. The Wisp was a one-man vessel, consisting of a tiny airlock port-side, a cockpit with one seat, and a small room in the aft. She had an engine-access panel on the floor, and what could have been an array of lockers or a toilet on the starboard side, but the wall there and everything that had been on or behind it was melted and horribly deformed.
Saren was sitting in the skeleton of the pilot seat to Nihlus’s left, with his helmet in his lap, and Duon was standing behind his back. The cockpit was a mess of melted plastics, shattered glass and broken consoles standing and hanging at angles, cables and wires dangling everywhere like the entrails of a gutted animal. An auxiliary terminal in front of Saren shone with a faint light and faded colors, feeble signs of life.
“What’s up,” Nihlus said.
“We’ve got a problem, Sarge. A big one.” Duon turned to face him. “The VI is awake—sort of—and it intends to self-destruct. In… ten minutes.”
Nihlus took a second to process the information. It wasn’t much of a threat; in ten minutes, they could be half a klick away. “So what are we waiting for?”
“The download,” said Duon, indicating Saren with his chin. “The Spectre wants to download the logs. And that will take…”
“Fifteen minutes,” said Saren. His voice was as flat as ever.
Nihlus became cautious. “Why so long?”
“My guess, not enough power for efficient storage access.” Duon shrugged. “Also, there’s lots of it.”
“Can we stop the countdown?”
“No,” Duon said. “The VI was programmed to self-destruct after a time-out, but it seems the crash screwed with its higher functions. It kept the old command queue, but can’t take new commands. It also forgot some of the parameters and took defaults—hence the ten minutes. There’s really nothing we can do other than move away.”
At that, Saren let out a displeased grunt, but said nothing.
“Time’s wasting,” Duon added.
“Can we… turn the power off?” said Nihlus.
“That would stop the download.”
“Well, I guess we could wait a while… but, Sir, is this data really worth the risk? You can’t have it all anyway.”
“That’s not acceptable,” Saren said, and there, there was a hint of frustration in that stone-cold voice now. “I need all of it. Without the logs, we’ll never find Okeer. You don’t know what’s at stake. Billions of lives depend on this.”
Duon rolled his eyes and Nihlus frowned at him in turn, but there was no time to sort it out right now. He flicked on his omni and tapped into the Wisp’s intranet to watch the countdown. Already at 8:40 and going down fast. If only they could slow the time… if only…
“What if we slow the time?” he said, a crazy plan ghosting inside his mind. Duon cocked his head, like he suspected Nihlus was cracking under the pressure. Saren half-turned in his skeletal chair. “Come on, Duon, there’s got to be a way,” Nihlus insisted. “We just need to fool the internal clock to tick slower.”
“Huh,” said Duon, his face changing into problem-solving mode. Saren turned in full now to face them. “Huh,” Duon repeated. “I could inject some omnigel into the gain medium… the impurities will change the frequency… in theory it might work, if we can find the hardware. But there’s like fifty-fifty chance it’ll speed up the countdown instead.”
Nihlus looked at Saren askance. Saren held his gaze for a few tense seconds. “Do it.”
“Come on,” Duon said, immediately springing to action. He pushed past Nihlus, grabbed the locks of the engine access panel and yanked. It didn’t give. He looked up. “Together?”
Nihlus took over the port-side lock. They pulled together, but it wouldn’t budge. He was becoming increasingly aware of the clock ticking, now at 7:55. Sweat trickled down his neck. If he could use both hands… but there was nothing to hold on to. He tested and scratched the edge in vain. At last he growled and took his gloves off, looking for purchase with his bare talons, and when he managed to push his claws under, Duon did the same. But even so, they couldn’t move it a millimeter.
“It’s stuck,” Nihlus gritted. He would have to spell it out, wouldn’t he. That they needed another pair of hands? But Saren got the message alright. He stood up and took his gloves off too. For a moment, the sight of his bare hands occupied Nihlus’s entire attention. Saren wore his talons pin-prick sharp. It wasn’t difficult to imagine him murdering someone with them. Hot damn.
He maneuvered around them and squeezed next to Nihlus in the small space. Under the odors of sweat and swamp, Nihlus caught a familiar scent on him. What was it? Some plate-balm, but where had he smelled it before? Damn, this was no time to dwell on nonsense. Saren gave a nod and the three of them pulled up in unison, grunting with effort. The hatch cracked open and came off clean.
Nihlus’s heart hammered in his ears as he stepped back. Saren’s talons had brushed his hand, leaving a trail of sensation and, sure enough, shallow scratches. He hazarded a look up, found Saren staring back and hurriedly averted his gaze again. A hot lump rolled down his stomach. What the fuck, Kryik?
“Ok, let’s see…” Duon dove into the wires and twinkling lights below the deck. “It should be somewhere… here! I got it! I think… let me just… where does this go? Ok, ok… and where does this come from? Let’s see.”
He went on muttering to himself while Saren and Nihlus waited in silence. Nihlus kept his eyes fixed to the countdown, fighting to put aside the strange impressions, one by one. He had had one shot of stims too many, he decided. He counted. One earlier in the day, before the village. One in the HQ. One just now. Pushing the limits of health recommendations, and that on top of the medigel. Pan was going to skewer him.
At 6:15, Duon lifted his head up from the hole. “Ok. Ok. I did it! Sarge, what did I do?”
The countdown said 6:13, but they all had a good couple of bated breaths before it went down to 6:12. Saren sat back into the pilot chair with a barely audible sigh of relief. Nihlus wiped the sweat from his neck.
“Good job,” he said, patting Duon on the shoulder. “You’re the best. Go tell Dinara what went down. Everybody should pick up their stuff and move to a safe distance at once.”
When Duon went out, Saren glanced at him sideways. “Quick thinking there, Kryik,” he said. “And original. It’s a trick I’ll remember.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Now get out.”
“You heard me.”
Nihlus looked at the countdown and then at the download progress bar, filling up at a tantalizingly slow rate. He made a quick calculation. “Sir. You’ll have no more than a minute to clear the blast radius. You don’t know the terrain. You’ll step into a soft spot, or catch in a strangle-vine. Let me help. That’s what I’m here for.”
Saren seemed to consider this. He looked at his bare hands and flexed his fingers nervously. “Fine,” he said at last.
“Thank you, sir.”
“For what? Letting you risk your life?” He snorted. “Any time, Kryik.”
“You’re risking yours too.”
Saren didn’t reply. He turned on his omni and a second later, a little sound in Nihlus’s earpiece informed him that he had an incoming message. It was a dossier on the krogan, Okeer. Interesting. Saren was in no way obliged to share his intel with anybody but the Council, least of all with some random trooper. Nihlus lowered himself on the floor and started scrolling through the file. One thing caught his attention immediately.
“This guy fought in the Krogan Rebellions? But that was like… fifteen hundred years ago.”
Nihlus bit his mandible, trying to figure out if that made him regret shooting that child-murdering son of a whore. It didn’t.
“He lives,” Saren said, as if reading his mind. “The ship has been logging his life-signs. There was a gap some eight hours ago, but then they resumed.”
“He switched to his secondary organs.”
“Yes. And now the Blood Pack has him.”
“I don’t suppose the ship’s been logging his location too.”
Stupid question. They wouldn’t be sitting here if Saren could just read Okeer’s coordinates from some log. Nihlus swallowed the embarrassment and focused on the file.
“Says here the other krogan don’t have a lot of respect for his… ideas.”
“The traditionalists on Tuchanka, maybe. But mercenaries work for credits, not ideas, and he doesn’t have the resources to pay them. All he can bargain with is the data he’d stolen from the salarians.”
“Is that why you’re after him?”
Saren nodded. “He must have promised the Blood Pack he’d grow them an army of offspring. Bring back the glory to the krogan. The old fool.”
Nihlus couldn’t exactly read while talking, but the subtitles he skimmed through offered no clue for understanding what Saren had just said. “You mean… krogan offspring? Can he do that?”
Because that would make Saren’s mission a romantic quest like the stuff Nihlus used to dream about as a teen: saving the Galaxy from some power-hungry madman with an army of mindless minions. Nihlus shooed the childish thought away, but not before it sent shivers up his plates.
Saren peered into him for a long time, his face an impenetrable mask. Deciding how much he can share? He’d already shared more than Nihlus had any right to hope for.
“He thinks he can,” he said at last. “And if he’s really as brilliant as that intel paints him, perhaps he’s right. But it would take years. Decades. Whatever he promises will be a lie. Krogan live long lives, but even among the eldest, few have the capacity to look beyond their muzzles. The Blood Pack won’t settle for some distant future victories.”
“Gotta disagree, sir. Wortag isn’t exactly wise and patient, but he has a good mind for business. If the data is valuable, he might simply take that as payment for protecting Okeer, and sell it to the highest bidder later.” Nihlus noticed that Saren’s gaze went a bit blank. “Wortag is the alpha krogan on Invictus,” he explained. “He has a decent legal front, but I’m convinced that he’s the de facto leader of the Blood Pack. Not what the General told you, eh?”
“We didn’t discuss my mission.”
Nihlus swallowed. “But you’re discussing it with me?”
Saren started to say something, then changed his mind and closed his mouth. “Baratus and I are old friends,” he said at last. “We spoke of personal things. Why would he tell me a different story about this Wortag, though? Isn’t he aware of your suspicions?”
Nihlus laughed. “The General never looked at me or spoke to me until this evening, much less took note of my conspiracy theories.”
“I’ll want to hear about your conspiracy theories, but our time is running out. Get ready.”
They both stood up, replacing their gloves and helmets. Nihlus pulled down his visor. The countdown lingered at 0:41 for a long time before going down to 0:40. He was too lazy to program the real-time countdown—but then, a real-time countdown started blinking in the message section. Now at 1:30.
Saren turned on his omni and checked the console one last time. “We can go now. The download will be complete before we’re out of range.”
Nihlus leaped out of the trench and turned to give Saren a hand. Saren took it, and then they were running over the clearing and into the bush. There was no trace of people or equipment. Nihlus turned on night vision, then thermal. It found turian signatures a hundred meters behind the treeline. The safest bet was to follow in their steps. As they passed the rim of the clearing, Nihlus focused on finding the quickest path, and the blue dot representing Saren on tactical started falling behind. He stopped and waited, his heart beating fast and loud with something close to panic. They were moving too slowly. The ship was still in clear view.
“Download complete,” Saren said over the intercom. The certainty seemed to inspire him to pick up the pace, and before long, Nihlus was the one lagging behind. He followed in Saren’s footsteps but that was all wrong, he’d—
Saren growled as his foot sank and he sprawled forward. And then the Wisp blew up.
Nihlus felt it first through the ground, the same way as when she had crashed. He threw himself over Saren just as the explosion went supersonic. The kinetic barriers of his suit flashed out of existence in an instant and there was a moment of mindless panic as the impact pushed all the air out of his lungs. Then everything went mercifully black.