CHAPTER 14 OF THINKER TRAITOR SOLDIER SPECTRE
The noise was insufferable. His heartbeat was lost in it. He didn’t know if he was asleep or awake. Dead or alive. He tried to move and the blackness around him swirled into a wormhole, pulling him in. There was nothing he could do to fight it. He couldn’t even scream.
How’s he doing?
It won’t be much longer, Sarge.
Is there nothing we can do? Get him to a proper hospital?
Wouldn’t change a thing. I’m sorry.
It’s not your fault.
I’m sorry anyway.
They were talking about him. It won’t be much longer. Fear clutched him in an icy grip. He couldn’t die, not yet. Too much depended on him. No one else knew! And by the time they learned, it would be too late. He couldn’t have it. He had to wake up. Wake up!
Saren blinked. It was dark, but he knew there was someone with him. A figure stepped toward him and he relaxed. It was Baratus.
He looked different. Those white uniforms—hadn’t they been redesigned years ago? Perhaps he kept it for sentimental reasons. Baratus was a sentimental man. He had indeed held on to Desolas’s sword. It hung from his belt instead of the ceremonial saber.
He just stood there, unnaturally still. He wasn’t blinking. He wasn’t breathing. Suddenly Saren was sure it wasn’t Baratus at all. It was someone else. Something else. He blinked again, and it was gone, and he sunk back into darkness.
An earth-shattering sound cut through the noise. It ripped a hole in the void and through the hole came a white light and the noise doubled, tripled!… before subsiding.
Spirits, he’s burning up.
No, it didn’t feel that way at all. The void was cold. Death’s hunting grounds.
Have you figured out what happened?
Broadly. The fever is from nodule inflammation. It started as a mild reaction to the vaccine, but it became acute when he started using them.
You mean the biotics. During the fight.
Yeah. And since then, these… things… have been multiplying like crazy.
Things? What things?
Are that the um… nano-cybernetics you mentioned before?
Yeah. And before you ask, I’ve no clue what they are, or what they’re doing.
The void became darker by a degree. Saren sensed proximity, motion. He tried to squirm away from contact but he couldn’t move.
What about that thing… there. Is that a… biotic thing?
What thing? Where?
No idea. This is way above my pay grade, Sarge. I only had biotics 101 and they sure didn’t show us anything like this.
Like what? What does it look like? Damn you people, talk some sense!
But the shapes in the void weren’t people. Not anymore. They were memories. Smoky shadows. Their whispers and mournful sighs mixed with the noise, ebbing and flowing, waves lapping on the stairs of the Temple to announce the coming tide.
Is he… awake?
Delirious. Remember that orori bite last year? You were like this for two days.
I don’t want to remember.
That. That was a good way of putting it. Well done, little brother. I’m reassigning your unit to my security detail. I want you to stay close, now. This is big, Saren. I can feel it. Can you feel it?
I feel… something. I don’t like it. We should study it before—
There’s no time for that. This is the break we’ve been waiting for. Don’t you see? I see it so clearly. I want you to see it too. But even if you don’t—do I have your support?
That’s a non-question.
Always, brother. Always.
I should go check in with Farril and—
Yeah. I’ll stay here. Anything I need to know?
Moisten his mouth every now and then, but if he awakes, don’t let him drink too much.
The ripping sound shook the earth again and the noise burst in like water through a broken dam. Water! What he would give for a bit of water!
Here you go. Nice and easy.
The rain had been falling so hard, it flowed down his face and into his mouth, it was cold and had a dirty, acidic taste flavored with the pine aroma from the plate-balm Desolas had given him. It went into his mouth and traced icy patterns down his scorched throat.
Sir? Can you hear me?
The crowd was quiet now, entranced. How had he managed to do it? The speech hadn’t been that good. Their heads turned into the floor of skulls down below the Temple. I don’t want to step on that. They aren’t even turian.
The wormhole opened and he fell through.
When he woke next, it was strangely silent. The noise was gone. It was freezing and he was shivering. He opened his eyes and saw Desolas sitting at his feet.
He took a quick glance at the surroundings: a small tent, barely long enough to accommodate his prostrate form. He was naked, slick with sweat, lying on a soggy bedroll. There was just enough dusky daylight to tell things apart. His armor was piled on the floor to his right. Another bedroll, crumpled but vacant, was spread perpendicular to his.
Desolas was sitting on it with his back to the side of the tent and his knees up by his chest. He wore the uniform he had died in and stared straight ahead. It didn’t look like he was aware that Saren had woken up.
Saren started to say something, but his throat was so dry that only a hiss emerged. Desolas turned. His face was completely expressionless, his eyes motionless. He did not breathe. Saren knew it was an apparition, like Baratus had been. But it was so real. So real! It was Desolas and Saren had no resources to fight the onslaught of emotion. He wept.
At that, some unspeakable shadow animated Desolas’s features. He bulged his eyes at Saren, his whole face stretched as if pulled apart by invisible threads. From his gaping mouth came a howl the likes of which Saren had never heard in his entire life, a feral, guttural “AAAAAA!!!” that shot him down as sure as if someone had fired a shotgun in his face at point blank range.
He scrambled backward in horror, tears rolling down his face, and as Desolas moved to put his giant hands on him, he acted on instinct to defend himself with biotics. The dark current ran through his tortured body like fire. The pain was unbearable and sparks started flaring up at random from every pore of his skin.
He blacked out—and came to right away, struggling against a great weight that threatened to rob him of his breath. Kryik hovered above him, holding his arms pinned to his chest. He looked as terrified as Saren felt.
“It’s ok!” he said. His voice was high-pitched with alarm, his breath hot and wet on Saren’s face. “It’s ok. You’re safe. You’re safe!”
“Ok. Ok.” They were both breathing heavily, like after a race. Kryik slowly loosened his grip on Saren’s hands and backed off. “Spirits. I thought you’d fry me.”
“I probably did.”
“Huh.” Kryik turned his ungloved hands this way and that and Saren saw he had burns all over his palms. “Didn’t feel a thing. No matter. A little medigel will fix it.”
Saren let his head drop back down. The tent was turning about him in slow spirals and the sensation of falling returned with nausea. His heart was still hammering in loud, angry thumps that shook his chest and made his vision pulse. And the noise, the noise returned with a revenge.
“Can you hear that?”
“That sound.” Saren waved a tired gesture indicating the world at large.
Kryik looked around. “The rain?”
“The rain.” Saren laughed until he coughed and tears streamed from the corners of his eyes. The rain.
Another wave of fever struck. This time Saren was mostly awake, thirsty, angry, and feeling like he was being cooked alive inside his carapace. Kryik sat with him, reading a datapad, wiping the sweat from his eyes and giving him water from time to time, but they didn’t talk. He’d lost all sense of time. It could have lasted for an hour or a whole day. At last, he slept.
When he awoke, he knew he was getting better. The rain must have stopped and there was more light. Kryik was absent.
He sat up. The bedding under him was soaked. He probed the site of the vaccine injection on his neck. It was hard and painful, and so were the minor nodules that connected directly to the amps behind his jaw. Prompted by discomfort, he lifted up his left arm and looked under it.
His breath hitched.
An array of tiny blue lights shone from under the bruised skin of his armpit. Talon-long and about two millimeters wide, it ran from the swollen nodule next to the large, dark vein. Saren stared, holding his breath, fighting dizziness. He counted the lights: seven. They looked like minuscule diodes tucked just under the skin. After a while, he had to resume breathing. He ran a finger over the spot. It was tender, very tender.
A decisive prick with a sharp talontip, a hiss of pain, a drop of blue. Six tiny lights to go. There were only four on the other side. Five in the back of his right knee and three behind the left. He inspected his groin too, but there was nothing there. Yet. He didn’t dare poke around the amps without a mirror.
The ordeal exhausted him. He found a piece of bandage and wiped the blood off, then took some water and went back to sleep.
The seal on the tent was guilty of the “ripping sound” from last night. It startled him, ending some unpleasant dream. He turned in time to see Kryik crawl out and seal the tent from the outside.
“Duon?” Kryik said, keeping his voice low.
“Yeah,” replied the medic. “He’s gone.”
Saren rose on his elbows, listening. Someone stomped a few steps away, slid in the mud, then hit something that crunched and splintered.
“Yeah. Go get your bones shattered, since I don’t have enough shit to deal with.”
Several other persons approached. Saren sat up, looked at his armor, but the very thought of getting out and being among people sapped the life out of him. He could pass this up and find out what he needed to know from Kryik later. He drained the water bottle and rummaged among the miscellanea strewn about on the floor for another one. No luck. But he did find his bag, buried under his armor. The fruit Kryik had brought him in Lomera was in remarkably good shape. His mouth watered at the sight of it and he realized he was famished. Where was his knife?
“You’re back,” Kryik said. “Anything?”
“No.” That was Theeka. She sounded profoundly exhausted. “Nothing. No blood on the scanner, nothing dropped. That whole section of the woods is trampled to hell and back so no tracks either. He’s gone.”
“That’s unacceptable. Go back and look harder.”
Saren had cut the melon-like fruit in half. Its aroma was alien but undoubtedly edible. He carved out a piece from the middle and swallowed it, barely chewing, with the crude urgency of starvation. It didn’t have much taste, but it was delightfully juicy.
“Sarge,” the other female said in a soothing tone. “It’s no use. Even if there’d been something to find, the rain washed it all away. We’ve done everything we could.”
“The hell we did.” More stomping ensued. “Fuck, I can’t believe this.”
“It’s not your fault,” the medic said.
“The hell it’s not. I signed us up for this. I sent him out there. He wasn’t ready. None of us were.”
“Bullshit,” Theeka said. “No one was readier than us.”
“Come on, Sarge,” the medic said. “You know shit can happen on any assignment. Other squads have gone through dozens of replacements just on account of disease and wildlife and stupid accidents. And unlike them, we were looking for trouble. I say we’ve been lucky so far.” He paused. “Lucky to have you as a leader.”
That was a good speech, Saren thought, chewing a new chunk of fruit. It rang true enough. But Kryik didn’t sound convinced.
Someone sat down on the ground, and soon others joined. Through the fabric of the tent, Saren saw their shadows morph from elongated to roughly circular. One of them remained on their feet, pacing to and fro.
“What are we gonna do with… the body,” Mirene said.
“We’ll bury him here,” the moving shadow said. It was Kryik.
“What?” Theeka said. “Why not call for a dustoff crew?”
“Because we don’t want to reveal our position,” the medic said. “Radio silence, remember?”
“So you still think Thadon’s out to get you.”
“Don’t start,” Kryik replied. “I’m not saying it’s Thadon. And I don’t think anyone’s after me. But someone’s sure after Sa—the Spectre.”
Saren froze in the middle of a bite, then resumed. It didn’t bother him. He wasn’t the only one to notice it, though.
“First name basis already, I see,” Theeka said. “You’re moving fast.”
Kryik laughed. “Look who’s talking.”
“If I was using Thadon to buck up for a promotion, you think I’d still be here?”
“Maybe you’re not bucking hard enough.”
“Fuck you, Nihlus.”
“You two should fuck each other and get it over with already,” Mirene said.
Theeka laughed, but it was forced. “He can dream.” She stood up and her shadow started bobbing away.
“No one said you’re excused,” Kryik yelled after her. The shadow rose a hand in the air. Saren didn’t need to see the gesture to know what it was. He looked at his own hands, grimy and sticky with the fruit juice. He’d eaten the first half of the melon but it only tickled his appetite.
“I don’t need this crap right now,” the medic said and got up.
“What. She started it.”
“May I be excused, sir?”
Another shadow left. Kryik huffed petulantly. “She did, though. Right? Like, what the fuck was all that about? Do you know? ‘Cos I sure don’t.”
“Let it go, Sarge. She’s upset. We’re all upset.”
Kryik sat down. “Yeah. But why does she have to take it out on me?”
“Who else? You’re the biggest target. It’s not your fault that Duon died, or that Lantar’s missing. You didn’t do anything wrong. But it is your responsibility.”
They were silent a while. Kryik’s figure rocked back and forth.
“And I know it sucks,” she went on softly. “But you have to hold the fort, Sarge, or it’ll crumble. Farril hasn’t said a word since the ambush. He refuses food and water. You need to talk some sense into him before he collapses. He won’t listen to anyone else. And you have to make peace with Theeka. You’re both insufferable brats but this is no time to poke at each other’s weak spots. She’s your deadliest weapon, and you don’t want to be on the wrong side of it, ok?”
“Most of all, you gotta keep your shit together, because we all depend on you to be the strong one.”
“You’re the strong one,” Kryik muttered. “You should be in command.”
Mirene got up with a grunt and slapped Kryik’s back. “What you lack is maturity, not strength.”
“Why, thank you so much. Just what I needed to hear.”
“Any time, Sarge.”
When he heard Kryik rise and amble toward the tent, Saren had the sudden impulse to lie back and pretend to be sleeping, but there was no time to hide the evidence.
The ripping sound of the tent seal made him wince even though Kryik had apparently tried to open it gently. His head poked in.
“Oh. You’re awake.”
“Get me some water.”
“Water. Yes, sir. Be right back.”
His head vanished and Saren heard him walk away. Chill, moist air came in through the tent flap, and a welcome sliver of gray daylight.
Saren gingerly checked his armpits, knees and groin. The punctures were barely visible. There were no new lights. The relief he felt was irrational but he embraced it. There was nothing he could do about this, not at the moment, and brooding on it would only distract him. He closed his eyes and used the last moments of privacy to carefully pack up his thoughts and feelings about nodules and nanites into a mental compartment labeled later.
Kryik returned with a water bottle in each hand and another under his left arm.
“Leave it open,” Saren said when he moved to seal the tent after crawling in. He grabbed the bottle Kryik offered and started to gulp it down.
“Don’t overdo it,” Kryik said. “Doctor’s orders.”
Doctor. Bah! Saren lowered the bottle with a grumble. “How long was I unconscious?”
“Half a day, give or take. About eight standard hours.”
“I could swear entire days have passed.”
“Yeah. I could tell you were in a bad place.”
“Did I speak?”
Saren snorted. “Lesson number one, Kryik. An effective lie always has a grain of truth in it.”
Kryik gazed at him, suddenly motionless, and Saren remembered the apparitions from his delirium. But after a few beats he swallowed loudly. “Yes, sir. I’ll uh… try to remember that. But really, you didn’t say anything… embarrassing. When I was bitten by an orori, they told me I recited entire scenes from my favorite porn vids.” He paused, perhaps waiting for some sign that Saren got the joke, but Saren wasn’t about to oblige him. “Which, you know, don’t really have that much dialog. Anyway—” he cleared his throat—“you, uh… well. You mentioned the General’s name a few times. And uh… your brother’s.”
Saren had started to lift the bottle to his mouth again but stopped and put it down, his heartrate rising. What else, he wanted to know? What else did I say? But a show of concern would only invite unwelcome curiosity.
Missing the meaning of his gesture by half a klick, Kryik put a hand over his mouth. “I’m sorry, sir. I meant no disrespect. Spirits!” He now covered his entire face with his hands. “What the hell is wrong with me,” he muttered. “I’m sorry, sir. Can you please forget I said anything?”
Saren drank some more water. In truth, had someone else, in some other situation, dared mention Desolas and pornography in the same sentence, he’d cut out their tongue.
“He’d have laughed,” he said. He wasn’t sure why.
“Hm?” Kryik spread his fingers to peek at him.
“My brother. He appreciated… gutter humor.” He would have undoubtedly found Kryik’s clumsy honesty and endless awkwardness entertaining, maybe even endearing. Saren found it hard to navigate.
Kryik put his hands down. “That is seriously hard to imagine. I uh… studied his speeches,” he added, registering Saren’s surprise. “I was a boy at the time of the Incident, but his extranet appearances made a lasting impression. He was a great speaker. Very… stately.” He smiled. “Like you are, sir.”
Saren coughed. “We’re nothing alike. He was ‘stately’ in the media, but with his men he was… like you are with yours.”
“You don’t approve.”
“It can be good for the morale. Not so good for discipline.”
“It’s not working out for the morale either, to be honest.” He sucked in a long breath. “I uh… We just lost a man. Our tech.”
“Duon,” Saren said. “And the young man, Lantar, is still missing. I heard.”
Kryik nodded. “Would you um… If you’re feeling well enough when we organize the burial… would you honor him with your presence?” His eyes were full when he looked at Saren again. “You’re the ranking officer,” he went on to explain in a changed voice, mistaking Saren’s silence for hesitation. “And it will only take a few minutes.”
“Thank you, sir.” Kryik sighed and brushed his nose with the back of his glove.
Saren took another sip from the water bottle. There was only a little bit left. “How did he die?”
“That’s… quite the story.” Kryik straightened up and cleared his throat, interlacing his fingers into a tight, sweaty knot. “After you were incapacitated, another Blood Pack unit attacked. Fewer vorcha, more krogan. We lured them into a trap. Managed to wipe them all out. Except one krogan, who was a biotic. He had some sort of a… field? All around him?” He mimicked a rippling, wavering phenomenon.
“Annihilation field,” Saren said. Hardly a standard item in krogan curriculum, but not unheard of.
Kryik repeated the phrase slowly, committing it to memory. “His first attack was like a… large, slow projectile.”
“Warp. Theeka managed to roll away from it, but Vezeer was hit. Farril and I opened fire from the other side and the krogan made this… sweeping motion.” The movement he performed as demonstration was almost a passable mimetic. Once again, Saren was impressed by the acuity of his memory and kinesthetics. “Like the thing Okeer did on the river.”
“It’s called shockwave.”
“Yes, sir. And, well, if it hit us, we’d have been toast. No shields, poor cover. So uh… Duon launched at him, to make him miss. But that krogan was five times his mass. When he struck back, Duon landed fifteen meters away. Broke his back. We showered the fucker with bullets, but he managed to charge before we could take him down. Pan says… the damage was too wide-spread. There was nothing to be done.”
Saren held his breath as a blurry memory bubbled up… of Kryik’s attack on the krogan with a greasy shotgun… following his suicidal diversion… after the cataclysmic grenade combo. But the effort to assemble the isolated images into a narrative only brought on a mild headache. Suddenly he was exhausted.
“Most men die for nothing, Kryik,” he said, lowering himself back down on the wet, cold bedroll. “Your man died to save his comrades. Take comfort in that.”
“Thank you, sir. But I’d rather take revenge.”
We will, Kryik. We will.
He closed his eyes. The fever was coming back.
The singing took him from whatever fever dream he’d been having right into the crispy memory of Desolas’ last rites. Everyone was there. Baratus stood by in his parade uniform, motionless and enduring like the bedrock of an ocean. Kryik and his men stood at attention, humming the main theme from the Litany of Anguish. Desolas stood next to the monument, pointing out something on it with a highly inappropriate grin, but Saren couldn’t hear him.
He opened his eyes. The singing was real. Kryik did not wake him for the funeral after all. His voice rose above the others, clear, strong and rich with the undertones of grief. Saren listened, floating on the vestiges of his dream. He had heard the cherished melody countless times, performed by some of the best conductors and choirs in the Hierarchy, but he could swear he had never heard it come this close to perfection.
Someone passed right next to his head and he jerked. The person was outside the tent, moving through the shrubbery step by slow, careful step, as if trying to make as little noise as possible.
Saren blinked the sleep out of his eyes. It was dark, but not completely, and he could still see. Kryik was asleep on his bedroll. His mandibles flicked but he didn’t stir.
The steps continued for some twenty meters, then stopped. The person sat down and turned on their omni-tool. They probably thought nobody could hear them from that distance, but Saren’s audio amps picked up the slight buzz with ease. He had no idea if it was dawn or dusk, but it was quiet enough to assume everyone was sleeping. Everyone but him, and the person outside.
For a while there was nothing. Saren remained alert, expecting the unwelcome sounds of someone relieving themselves, one way or another.
What he heard instead was a whispered curse. “For fuck’s sake. Where are you?”
It was Theeka.
Saren propped himself on an elbow and perched his ears. Waiting for someone to blow off steam with? He glanced at Kryik again. But if it was he she had pinged, Saren would’ve heard it. And if she was trying to reach someone over the extranet, his own omni would buzz. He had set up comms monitoring when they left Lomera. But his omni could’ve been damaged in combat. He wondered what fate had befallen his helmet and the pistol he had dropped. The fight with the krogan started to replay in his mind again—the broken visor—the barrel of a shotgun—
The buzz of the omni startled him. Not the single gentle pulse, but the insistent vibration of an alarm.
“Shit,” Theeka muttered. The vibrations stopped—and something else started. Almost imperceptible even for Saren’s extended senses, but immediately recognizable. The faint hum of an extranet link.
He sat up, careful not to make noise, then rose into a crouch. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to walk so he tested his knees while still leaning on his arms.
Outside, Theeka was typing. Talking to someone over the extranet in spite of his orders.
The tent seal would make a lot of noise. It wasn’t likely she would hear, but he didn’t want to wake Kryik, yet. He started to pull, gently. It wasn’t as bad he’d expected.
It was dark and wet and cold outside. Saren slipped out of the tent but remained low. He waited a few seconds, fighting dizziness, then took off.