CHAPTER 16 OF THINKER TRAITOR SOLDIER SPECTRE
Saren spun on his toes, making a full-circle sweep with his arms extended sideways. The violence of the motion stirred the air like a fan. When he reached the apex he ducked and repeated the sweep in the opposite direction from a half-squat, while Kryik executed the mirror move centimeters above his head. It was the flashy, optional finisher for the second form, done by young athletes in competitions to impress the judges.
Saren felt neither young nor athletic. The entire exercise could have lasted no more than ten minutes, yet he was breathless. As he stepped back, Kryik spun one more time. Out of turn. A poorly thought-out improvisation or an honest mistake—it mattered not. Saren bent back at a hazardous angle and evaded Kryik’s slashing hand a split second before losing an eye.
“Damn it, Kryik!”
“Fucking hell,” Kryik echoed, stumbling away with both hands draped over his mouth. “Are you ok?”
“I’m fine,” he snapped. It wasn’t entirely true. The awkward movement had left his lats cramped and his neck and lower back aching. But what worried him more was the dizziness. He leaned on his knees, barely able to hear anything over the drumming of his heart. He resolved then and there that, should he survive this mission, he’d put twice as much time into training in high g than he had before.
“I’m sorry. I miscounted. Spirits, I’m so sorry.”
“Yes, sir.” And then, not three seconds later, “You sure you’re ok?”
Saren straightened up to prove it. He had meant to glare at Kryik with conviction, but seeing him standing there, shocked out of proportion, dissolved his anger.
“Your mind is elsewhere,” he said. “I shouldn’t have let you talk me into this.”
“It won’t happen again, I promise.”
“You got that right.”
Kryik was breathing heavily. A thin sheet of perspiration shone on his arms and shoulders. Warmed-up muscles twitched under his dark skin. No. He was shivering, and it had nothing to do with the exertion. He crossed his arms to hide it, but it did little to conceal the utter misery on his face.
Saren regretted being so harsh. Not so much because he cared about Kryik’s hurt feelings, but because it had been a cheap bluff. He was still weak from the fever and momentarily annoyed, but if Kryik was to try and talk him into doing more Hallori later, he would put up only token resistance. It had been the most enjoyable thing he had done in a long time, and this narrowly-avoided accident aside, Kryik was a decent partner.
He cast about for his jacket. They were in a grassy clearing within shouting range from the camp. A tiny stream trickled over it into a shallow, muddy pond. The overcast sky loomed low above the surrounding treetops. Their things were in a heap next to a flat-topped rock. He started walking.
“Were you very close?” he asked. After a few steps, he heard Kryik follow him.
“You and the girl. Theeka.”
They reached the rock and Kryik watched him put on his jacket with unfocused eyes, turned inward. He scratched behind his crest.
“You don’t have to answer.”
“No, no. I’m happy to. As soon as I figure out what the answer is.” He flicked a mandible in an attempt to smile. “We weren’t… sleeping together, if that’s what you’re asking.”
It wasn’t, but—”Does the IIC regulate fraternization?”
“Ha. No. They’d have to deal with all-out mutiny if they tried.”
Saren hummed. Glancing down, he noticed a large white flower dangling just over his toes on the moist breeze. It looked like an untamed relative of the cialis, often groomed near burial sites on Palaven.
“Do the cabals regulate it?” Kryik asked. A current of curiosity barely held in check by caution vibrated in his lower harmonics. Saren couldn’t decide if it amused or annoyed him.
“They try,” he said. “They don’t enforce it, but the idea that sex is bad is a part of their doctrine.”
“Like, in general?” Kryik laughed. “How can it be bad?”
“According to their teaching, sex dissipates emotional and physical energy and therefore affects biotics adversely.”
“Any… truth to that?”
Saren snorted. “Of course not. It’s just another way to make us feel special—by which I mean isolated—and prevent us from multiplying. Yes,” he added, before Kryik could say whatever he had opened his mouth to say. “They propagate the notion that biotics are hereditary despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. One of these days they’ll declare it a contagious disease, just wait and see.”
Having successfully wound himself up over nonsense, he took off his jacket again. The weather reminded him of rainy days in Cipritine spring when you couldn’t walk out without a coat, but you’d start sweating in it the instant you moved. Even the air had the same moldy smell.
“I see they didn’t manage to indoctrinate you,” Kryik said.
Saren knew very well that Kryik hadn’t meant that indoctrination. The dark connotations were his alone. But the word, dropped so casually, made him wince. To mask his reaction, he stepped around the white flower and climbed on top of the rock, where he sat and took a deep, centering breath.
“I was fortunate,” he said. “I studied with an asari before I was recruited. For them, biotics are the norm, not the exception.”
Kryik seemed to mull it over. “How come we’re ok with alien biotics—as a society, I mean—but not with our own?”
“The cabals prefer it that way. The intangible is unstoppable. That’s their slogan,” he explained when Kryik showed no sign of recognition. Suddenly the whole conversation struck him as ridiculous. Discussing cabal politics with some random trooper on Invictus was the last thing he would have expected when he launched on this mission.
A random trooper of exceeding aptitude, who had established himself as a reliable ally and had saved his life. Of course, that was his duty. But duty did not cover indulging Saren in one of his most obscure interests, bringing him fruit, waiting on him while he had been sick, or giving him the widely under-appreciated gift of undivided attention. Somehow, talking with Kryik was much less of a chore than talking with Sparatus, who had known him for years and was supposedly his equal.
“What about the man who died,” he said, breaking the pensive silence. “Duon?”
“What about him?”
“Were you close?”
“Oh.” Kryik shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “No. Don’t get me wrong: I miss him dearly. Lantar too. And Theeka. We’ve been practically living together for two years now. Not to mention all the crap we’ve been through as a team. But I’m not really close with anyone.” He paused. “Why?”
Saren stared at the treetops on the other side of the clearing. A flock of small, blue, bird-like creatures was diving in and out of the canopy, feeding on some unseen airborne feast. “I heard you singing, when you buried him. Unless it was another fever-dream.”
“It wasn’t.” Kryik sighed. “It hit me pretty hard, is all. Like losing a limb or something. I still can’t believe he’s gone.”
“You’ve never lost a man before.”
“That’s quite an accomplishment, with your service history.”
Kryik’s head snapped in Saren’s direction, a dangerous glint in his eye. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
A poor choice of words. It was supposed to be a compliment. Saren picked out a small stone that had splintered from the rock he was sitting on and absently flicked it across the clearing with a touch of biotic lift. “You’ve seen a lot of combat for your age and rank,” he said. “It takes exceptional luck to never suffer a loss in this line of work.” Or exceptional skill.
Kryik’s glare softened by degrees, but his mandibles twitched with some new annoyance. “So, you’ve read my file.” He laughed. “I hope you found it entertaining.”
“I found it puzzling.”
Saren gave him a warning glance. He had done nothing to deserve this hostility.
“I’m sorry, sir.” Kryik massaged his forehead. “I kind of hoped to be judged by my current merits, not my past mistakes.”
“What makes you think you won’t be?”
Kryik shrugged. “Experience.” He too picked up a piece of splintered rock and tossed it in the air. Thanks to the flat shape, it flew farther than Saren’s.
“There’s much to be proud of in your service record.”
“But much more to be ashamed of, right? Well, I’m not. Only a handful of things I’d do differently if I could go back in time. Though that would only make my file worse, not better. I’d kill a few scumbags I allowed to live, that’s pretty much it.” He paused, searching the distant tree crowns for words. “I’d keep my mouth shout on a couple notable occasions, I guess. And pull back some punches.”
Saren sent another small stone flying, with more purpose, and it overshot Kryik’s.
Kryik grinned at him, found a new projectile, and leaned into the movement when he flung it. It reached about the same distance as Saren’s. In response, Saren scratched out a bigger piece and launched it over the distant treetops, where it went out of sight.
“That’s hardly fair,” Kryik muttered, shielding his eyes from the light of the gloomy noon.
It had been a bit excessive. Saren rubbed his mandible, distractedly calculating the mass effect on the stone. Assuming a spherical shape of unit radius and the density three times that of water… It shouldn’t have gone that far. Just like that grenade combo shouldn’t have had an area of effect large enough to knock them both out.
“Any family?” he said aloud.
Kryik didn’t reply at once. “Isn’t that on my file?”
“The names of your parents are, but I didn’t run checks on them.”
“Well. They’re dead. No siblings, no mates, no children—at least none I know of. No ties whatsoever. Free as free-falling stone.”
The simile was quite apt. To Kryik, the forces keeping him bound to Invictus and his current status must indeed have seemed as impersonal and inescapable as gravity itself.
When he picked up another stone and lounged forward, hurling it with all his might, Saren gave it some extra lift. It shot upward like a bullet, in a straight line, breaking the sound barrier and leaving a misty blue trail behind. It would burn up in the atmosphere before it reached space, of course. But it certainly acquired the requisite velocity.
Kryik stared after it with loose mandibles. Saren took his stunned silence as a sign that he had understood.
After a while, he slid down on the ground and stretched, looking around. “Help me find me a rock.”
“Huh?” Kryik blinked at him like a man woken up from deep sleep.
“Clawball-sized, three to five kilos.”
“A rock. Yes, sir. Coming right up.”
They searched the perimeter. Trees other than ganuts grew here, most notably a sort of tapered, blue-leafed fir, branching out near the ground from a thick, squat trunk. Last night’s march had brought them to the foothills and the terrain was rockier than before, with ground rising at a mild westward slope.
It had been another grim trudge through the dark, made worse by Saren’s recurring fever. By first light, when they made camp, everyone was so exhausted that they slept surrounded with proximity mines instead of posting watch. But a few hours of uninterrupted rest had done wonders. His illness had run its course and he was mostly himself again. The stone-throwing competition reminded him there was one more thing he needed to test.
“Something like this?” Kryik called after a minute.
He held a rock that looked to have the right mass. It was roughly cubical, all sharp edges and jagged surfaces. Hardly ideal for calibrations, but it would do.
“Put it down.”
Kryik raised his browplates, but did as he was told.
“Step away,” Saren said. “Further,” he added when Kryik took literally one step back.
“What are you gonna do?”
But Saren had put him out of his mind and focused inward. He took a deep breath and reached for the peculiar strength within, performing the simple mimetic for biotic levitation with the concentration and caution of an athlete going for the first run after a crippling injury. The rock rested on the ground some two meters in front of him. And then it floated at his eye-level. It didn’t feel like five kilos. It felt like—nothing. Saren let it drop.
“Whoa,” Kryik said. “All systems check, eh?”
Saren picked up the rock from the ground and weighed it suspiciously. In his hands, it felt heavier than five kilos.
“I need something bigger.”
Kryik looked around. “Does it have to be a rock?”
Predictably, Kryik flashed a coquettish smile at him. “You can lift me! I had a lot of practice flying and falling these past few days. Not that you’ll lose all that much even if I do break my neck. And I guarantee a solid hundred-fifty. If you’re up for a challenge.”
“This will do,” Saren said, ignoring him. There was a large rotting trunk of a fallen tree a few steps into the woods.
“You’re no fun.”
Saren focused again. This time he used both hands for the mimetic, expecting some resistance. But the trunk lifted off the ground cleanly, quietly, and he held it in the air with no special effort. He could feel its weight alright, but it was more like holding a bag of groceries than like weight-lifting. In his peripheral vision, a congress of black and yellow spiders, centipedes and beetles scurried around in the dark patch of wet earth exposed beneath the trunk. Kryik walked backward, gaping. The trunk rotated around a perpendicular axis just above the ground, fast enough to sweep up dry leaves and pine needles. Saren twisted his hand and the rotation slowed down to a stop. He twisted his hand in another direction and the trunk stood upright. He planted it on the ground, where it remained in precarious balance when he released it. After a few seconds it tipped and fell with a thud he could feel through his feet.
For a while everything was still. Kryik walked to the trunk and glanced at Saren askance. He squatted at one end of the trunk and brought it up to hip-height.
“Holy shit,” he grunted and dropped it. “I guess hundred-fifty wouldn’t be much of a challenge.”
“Is everything ok?”
More than ok. He felt strong. He felt like he could tilt the planet’s rotation axis. A strange heat emanated from the sensitive spots of his body: the neck, the armpits, the groin, the hollows of his knees. The same heat he’d felt the day before yesterday on the battlefield, only now it wasn’t painful. It was hungry.
Sensing an accumulation of surplus charge, he crouched and touched his talontips to the ground.
“While you were… feverish… Pan said there were some… nano-cybernetics in your bloodstream. At least that’s what I picked up. Might be he said something else entirely.” Kryik bit on his mandible. “Are there?”
Saren’s heart was beating hard again, as if he was really weight-lifting. The medic had mentioned this while he had been delirious, but he had forgotten it. Saren would have to see his omni purged of the evidence.
“Yes,” he said. Neither too fast, nor too slow to respond. A good lie is always rooted in the truth. “Leftovers from a trial with prototype technology.”
“Intelligent medigel delivery system.”
“Oh. Wow. That sounds brilliant.”
“Only in theory.”
“It doesn’t work?”
“We’re not quite there yet.”
It did not particularly matter if Kryik would buy it. But in the unlikely event that the low-res images from the medic’s field scanner got out and reached someone with an interest in nano-tech, it would be good to have a cover story ready. Might as well spin one right away.
“We? As in, the Hierarchy?”
Saren’s tidy mental compartment could only take so much shaking. Things were crawling out of it. Fear, anger. He could not allow the sparks to fan into flames. Not before he had the time and privacy to think about the implications on his own terms.
“Enough with the questions. It’s classified.”
“Oh.” Kryik sounded part dismayed, part disappointed. Just what Saren had intended. A boring lie in place of the unspeakable truth that was almost indistinguishable from it. “Sorry, sir.”
Saren itched for more practice. And so did Kryik, judging by his restless bouncing.
“Come,” Saren said, walking back to the middle of the clearing. “I’ll teach you how to evade some basic biotic attacks.”
When they got back to the camp they found Mirene turning an improvised spit over a low fire, with four things skewered on it that could’ve been small birds or large frogs. Loud snoring was coming from one of the two closed tents. Inside the third, Saren glimpsed Vezeer, the Thunderstorm man. The plates on his chest and shoulders were cracked and flaking where the warp had eaten through his armor. A messy injury that would leave ugly scars. Still, he smiled looking up. Probably well-doused with medigel.
The roasting meat smelled delicious. Saren was hungry again. His body was requesting he made up for the past few weeks of uncharacteristic neglect. He took a sip of water from his bottle, wondering if it would be below him to commandeer half of all the food. He was a biotic, after all, and he did have the seniority.
But Farril returned from the recon mission before he had the opportunity to decide either way. Kryik called for war council and everyone sat in a circle around the holo-model of the Shithole projected from Farril’s omni.
“All of this is underground,” he said, pointing at the expansive T-shaped hallway structure connecting two dozen rooms, large and small. Typically for high-g worlds, it was all on the same level. “This is the LZ.” He indicated the circular plateau on top of the complex. “It’s large enough to fit three or four shuttles, but I only saw one. And that gunship that came for Okeer. There were men welding something inside and bickering about it. It might be broken, but best not to count on it.”
Brows gathered and heads nodded.
Saren touched one of the two small buildings that appeared to be above the ground, at the ends of the T’s bar. “What are these?”
“Guard towers. With machine-gun nests. No automated turrets, though. There’s a service elevator at the base of each. And a workstation on top. That’s where the holo-projectors for the camo are housed.”
“Where’s the entrance?” Kryik asked.
Farril stabbed at the base of the T.
“No. Two krogan man the guard towers, one each, and there’s half a dozen vorcha patrolling the perimeter. I got the impression they’re all terminally bored. I was hiding here,” he poked the holo next to one of the guard towers, “and I could hear the krogan in there snoring. He had a folding chair and all.”
“How did you get all this intel?” Mirene asked. “Looks incredibly detailed.”
“Their security is crap. I hacked into their intranet without a hiccup. Downloaded these plans, maintenance schedules, guard duty roster, you name it.” He consulted his omni. “If we hurry, we might catch my boy… Drau Fragor before he wakes up.”
“But not the comm logs?” Saren asked, just in case.
“No, sir. There was another network behind a firewall. Duon… would’ve made short work of it, but I didn’t dare poke at it and risk getting detected.”
Heads dropped in sudden silence.
After a while, the medic cleared his throat. “What’s this?” There was a waypoint in one of the smaller rooms inside the compound.
Farril bit his mandible. “I think that’s Lantar.”
Everyone got excited and asked what? how? when? all at the same time. Kryik had to wave his hands to calm them down.
“What do you mean, you think?” Saren asked.
“Well. Last year, the IIC started chipping people.” He had been speaking to no one in particular, but now he turned to Saren to explain. “Because soldiers, mostly rookies, go missing in the jungle with no trace or explanation at a steady rate of a dozen a year. So, they started injecting newcomers with locator microchips. They’re supposed to get triggered by anomalous metabolic states. When starving, injured, frightened and so on. None of us got them yet.” He turned to Kryik now. “But Lantar may have.”
“You caught its signal?”
“Wish it was that simple.” He scratched his crest. “Something blinked on my visor, once. It didn’t get recorded. I don’t even know what it said, but it had the IIC logo and someone’s service number and it was flagged urgent. When I tried to pinpoint it, I couldn’t find it again. So… Could be nothing. Or it could be Lantar.”
“Could be his dead body,” the medic muttered.
“The chip keeps emitting after you die,” the medic explained. “That’s the main point, if we’re being honest. To locate the bodies when people go missing, since no one really believes they go on living long after that. Give the families some closure and all that.” He waved a hand, drawing a clear line between himself and ‘all that’.
Kryik ended the thoughtful silence. “What do you think, sir?”
Saren gave him an irritated look. This did not concern him or his mission and he didn’t want to think about it. “It’s almost certainly your man. It is highly unlikely that he fell pray to some random jungle peril fifty meters from the Blood Pack position. And given that, even less likely that the Blood Pack are holding some other turian soldier captive.”
Kryik nodded, and so did the others, one by one.
“If they do have him,” Saren continued, “he probably lives. They wouldn’t carry him to their den just to kill him there. They would’ve done so at once.”
There were sighs of relief, as if his conjecture was solid proof of what they wanted to hear.
“However, unless he has a very rich family or very influential friends worth blackmailing…” He paused to see if there would be an affirmative. But Kryik shook his head. “The only reason to keep him alive is to use him for bargaining with me. And in that case, they might subscribe to a very narrow definition of alive.”
He gazed at Kryik, wondering if he needed to say more. He had read gruesome accounts of how hostile krogan treated captive turians, and witnessed a few cases himself. Krogan nurtured an unhealthy fascination with turian anatomy and were especially fond of peeling off plates as a means of slow, sustainable torture. And when information—or suffering for its own sake—weren’t of interest, a strong turian could provide days of entertainment in a fighting pit, pitched against varren, vorcha or even krogan, until utter physical or psychological collapse, whichever came first.
Kryik’s expression shifted by degrees. “You’re saying he might be… better off dead?”
No shocked gasps came from the others. They exchanged furtive glances or stared at the ground. Saren shrugged.
“I don’t believe that,” Kryik said. “Wounds heal. People recover from all sorts of trauma.”
With scars for life, and not only on carapace. But there was no point in arguing. “You asked my opinion. You got it.”
“Either way,” Vezeer said, breaking the awkward silence, “we’ll have to look for him. Right, Sarge?”
“Extracting Okeer is top priority,” Saren hurried to say before Kryik could support the notion of a valiant rescue. “You can look for your comrade after he’s secured.”
Kryik refused to look at him but didn’t dare protest. Good. It wasn’t open for discussion.
“So…” Farril said. “What’s the plan?”
“We can’t call for backup,” Kryik said.
“Why not?” Vezeer asked.
“Someone up the command chain is corrupt,” Mirene said. “Or several of them. They could warn the Blood Pack. Give them enough time to evacuate. Or worse.”
“Send us to our deaths,” the medic said.
“There could be a hundred krogan and vorcha in there,” Vezeer said. “It’s a fortress. What can the six of us do on our own?”
“The five of you will provide a diversion while I extract Okeer,” Saren said. “Fake a frontal assault, take out the guard towers and disable the gunship. Then retreat to a defensible position and keep the Blood Pack occupied while I infiltrate the compound through the service elevator.” He pointed at the east guard tower.
“Let me come with you,” Kryik said. “Please, hear me out before you say no. You’ll need my help to get there unnoticed,” he went on without even a token pause to let Saren express his objections. “Cloak can’t hide you while moving though the bush, or muffle your footsteps. More importantly, it would be difficult—and risky—to adjust our tactics to a team of five. We’re trained to move in pairs and fours.”
Heads nodded while Saren held Kryik’s excited gaze, grasping for flaws in his logic. He couldn’t find any. “Go on.”
“I suggest we split in three teams. I’ll go with you. Pan and Farril enter the same way, but from the other side.” Kryik put a finger on the west guard tower, then moved it up and down the elevator shaft. “We could seal the elevators behind us. With them moving from this end and us on the other, there’s only one way for Okeer to run if they’re alerted to our presence. Mirene and Vezeer can find cover and lay low here,” he pointed at the area directly in front of the main entrance, “ready to provide backup, or a diversion, or apprehend Okeer if we don’t get to him first. As an aside,” his voice wavered, “the other infiltration team could try to locate Lantar.”
Everyone was looking at Saren now, awaiting judgment. Perhaps his fever was back, or it was the exhaustion, or the declining hope that this mission would end well, but Kryik’s plan sounded better than his own. In his rush to discard any help, he had failed to notice the rather obvious appeal of having all three exits covered. Besides, Kryik and his men have demonstrated nothing but competence so far. There was no reason to consider them a hindrance when in truth they were an asset. Two teams would move through the facility twice as fast as one, and with Kryik to watch his back, he could make better use of his biotics.
“Fine,” he said at last. “Make the preparations. We move as soon as possible.”
The overt gratitude in Kryik’s smile was unsettling. A part of him felt that this decision, whether good or bad, was entirely worth it. And that was even more unsettling.