House in an Invictus Jungle

CHAPTER 17 OF THINKER TRAITOR SOLDIER SPECTRE

They crawled to the edge of the rocky outcrop and peeked over. The east guard tower was ten meters ahead. It would be entirely possible to hear a krogan posted there snoring from here. But Nihlus could hear nothing.

“Change of watch?” Saren said. He lowered his visor. A moment later, Nihlus heard the delicate buzz of the optical focus. “There’s no one in there.”

Well, yes. The tower was a cube of concrete with a rusty iron fence encircling the top and a slanted roof to keep the equipment dry. There was no way to hide a krogan on it. Or anything, for that matter. A ladder with six rungs led up from the ground on the east side. A sturdy sliding door faced them from the south side. That would be the service elevator.

Everything was just as Farril had described it. Only his boy, what-was-his-name-krogan was missing.

“Team Two,” he said over the intercom. “We’re in position but no sign of krogan sentry. What’s your status?”

“Same,” Pan said. “No one here. I don’t see the vorcha patrols either.”

Nihlus didn’t have fancy optics in his visor but he had his sniper rifle. He extended it, cringing, as always, at the sharp click marking the final stage of autoassembly. Saren’s closed helmet turned a few degrees, expressing volumes of disapproval.

“Sorry, sir.”

He looked down the sights, adjusted the magnification. The LZ was an oval slab of reinforced concrete, blackened and polished to a dull shine by numerous landings and takeoffs. Stubborn weeds thrived in the cracks that crept from the edges inward, showing for at least a few decades of age. The two guard-towers rose from the opposing sides of the south half of the oval. Overgrown walkways lined the north half, meeting at the ramp that descended underground and out of sight. That was the entrance. The familiar-looking gunship, with its hodgepodge camouflage of branches with limp leaves rotting on it, was parked east of it. Next to it rested a salvaged turian military transport in even worse state of repair. Likely what the Blood Pack had used to deploy their ‘task force’ at the Claw.

He froze mid-sweep, heartrate rising. “I see one of the vorcha sentries. Dead.”

“Shot?”

Nihlus zoomed in. “Broken, more like.” The vorcha’s body was twisted in the waist as if something had taken him by the arms and legs and wrung him. “Can biotics do that?”

“Let me see.”

Saren shuffled closer and reached for Nihlus’s weapon. And Nihlus couldn’t move, suddenly seized by internal resistance bordering on panic. He experienced the damnedest flashback of a bizarre exercise that coach Ensiter had started him on when qualifications for the Colonial Open had become a certainty. He was supposed to close his eyes and let himself fall back as a plank—trusting her, or Dario, or whoever was around at the time, to catch him. The floor in the gym was padded and he took falls by the dozens daily, but nothing could mitigate that primal fear of letting go. The same fear he struggled to overcome now, for some fucking reason.

After seconds of hesitation, he extended the bipod and slowly rotated the rifle on it. Saren waited, still and silent, as if he knew exactly what was going on inside Nihlus’s head. When he accepted the grip and nestled the stock on his shoulder, Nihlus puffed out a lump of hot air and shook his head clear. Damn, that was weird.

“Subtle,” Saren muttered, looking through the scope.

“Sir?”

“A precision kill. Snapped the neck before the body hit the ground. And, more importantly,” he added, “before the victim could scream. This requires fine control. Hardly the work of a krogan biotic.”

Just like during the fight in the jungle, Saren sounded distant and detached, meditative almost, while next to him Nihlus vibrated with excitement.

“I bet the other sentries are dead too. It’s been too quiet too long. Could this be related to Okeer?”

“Of course it is. Lesson number two, Kryik: there’s no such thing as coincidence.”

Nihlus bit into his mandible to hold back a smile. He had been daydreaming about this, though he had been careful not to develop an expectation that there’d really be another lesson, let alone one confirming a commitment to a non-random numbering scheme. What’s with the lessons, he asked in the fantasy. And Saren replied, would it kill you to learn something new? And Nihlus would go all dark and serious and say, I’d kill to learn from you.

Out of nowhere, he became acutely aware that Saren’s shoulder was pressed against his and that they were close enough to bump their helmets if they turned to face one another at the same time. And the way he held Nihlus’s rifle, with the easy confidence of an experienced marksman—well, of course Saren was an experienced marksman; there could be no doubt he excelled at every imaginable method of murder, but—there was something special about it. Something… sexy. Nihlus felt a flutter in his chest. When he said, “Yes, sir,” it was a breathless whisper.

Saren’s helmet turned to look at him. Almost touching now. “Nervous?”

“No, sir.” He strained to sound calm and remain motionless. “Not at all. Why would you say that?”

“All you need to do is shoot anything that moves, unless it’s Okeer. Nothing to it.”

“I’ve done this sort of thing before, you know.”

“I’ve met operatives who’d been in this business longer than ten of your lifetimes and still got nervous before a mission.”

Nihlus calculated. “Asari?”

“Huntresses were the first Spectres.”

“Right.” He knew that. He used to be a military history buff in school. But that was long ago and now his brain was shooting blanks. “Not you though? Getting nervous, I mean.”

“No.” Saren leaned away and returned Nihlus’s rifle to him. “Facing death brings out the best in me. Or the worst, as it may be. I find it… relaxing.”

Nihlus laughed. “Relaxing?”

But Saren was serious. “The world goes away. Everything becomes simple. Black and white. Do or die.” He shrugged rather effectively given his prone position. “It’s a relief.”

Nihlus tried to consider this, but it was all a bit too lofty for the current circumstance. “I like the world,” he muttered at last.

He peered through the scope and re-adjusted the magnification. Nothing had changed down there. He didn’t like it.

“Sarge?” said Mirene over the intercom. “Got movement here.”

Nihlus reflexively looked up. “Where?”

“They’re heading for the LZ, you should see them in a sec.”

“How many?” asked Saren. “Who are they?”

“Two. Looked like asari or drell. Dressed up like ninjas. Whoever they are, they sure aren’t Blood Pack. Good thing we’re late or we’d have stumbled right into each other.”

“Got a visual,” said Farril.

Nihlus returned to the sights of his rifle. “Yeah.” Two cloaked figures darted from the walkway, each toward a guard-tower. They appeared as colorful ghosts through the thermal scanner in his scope. To the naked eye, they were practically invisible against the dark backdrop of the LZ. “What’s that they carry?”

“Gas canisters. And that there’s a ventilation grate.”

“I have a bad feeling about this.”

“Cut the chatter,” Saren said, and finally, there was an edge to his voice. “Listen!”

Holding his breath, Nihlus perched his ears, letting the legion of jungle sounds he’d long learned to ignore, filter into his awareness. The layered, multi-periodic insect noises, frog calls and bird cries, the rustle of small creatures scurrying in the bushes and the creek of the trees in the wind.

That wasn’t wind. It sounded like—“A shuttle?”

They both looked up. The large pixels of the holo-camouflage that hid the sky stretched above them like dirty rags. The humming of a mass effect drive drew closer. Something blocked the light. Hot wind rose in a gust when the vessel dived under the holo and fired the landing thrusters.

It was an older generation civilian plane, salvaged from some junk-yard and reworked by the crafty merc techs into an all-purpose military vehicle. It was armed to the teeth and fit with patchwork armor, spray-painted in muddy greens and browns. The white, clear-cut insignia on the side stood out in stark contrast.

“That can’t be right,” Nihlus muttered, zooming in on it as the shuttle touched ground across the way from the gunship, west of the entrance.

“Blue Suns,” Saren said. “I didn’t think they had a foothold this far in Council Space.”

Nihlus snorted. “Name a merc org—they have assets on Invictus, guaranteed. But no one messes with the Blood Pack here, not openly.” The door of the shuttle had lowered and a dozen asari-shaped figures wearing blue uniforms poured out. They spread over the LZ in a loose formation typical for mercs and their half-assed training, setting up mobile barricades and shield generators.

Mirene’s voice on the intercom gave him a start. “Sarge? The front door’s opening. What do we do?”

He turned to Saren. “Time to start shooting anything that moves?”

“Not yet. I want to see how this will play out. Do not engage unless I say.” To Nihlus, he added in private: “I’m going to take a look at that tower. You stay here and observe.”

“Yes, sir.”

The first shots sounded from the LZ just as he relayed the orders. Nihlus looked through the scope. A couple vorcha ran up the ramp, right into the Blue Suns killzone, and got shot. One almost reached the cover of the gunship when a round got him in the leg. He started to drag himself toward the woods. The Blue Suns didn’t pursue. They focused fire from all sides on a krogan who, like the vorcha, ran out blindly and charged toward them. More vorcha and several varren came out as well, but it looked more and more like they were running away from something inside rather than attacking the assailants outside. Two more korgan emerged, ignoring the Blue Suns’ fire. The first ran headfirst into a stack of empty fuel barrels, crashed on top of them and stayed down, trashing about as if a horde of flesh-eating larvae had entered his armor. The other threw his helmet on the ground, let out a broken war-cry and left a blue biotic trail behind as he charged straight into the nearest tree.

Nihlus flinched and looked up. “What the fuck?”

“They must have injected something in the ventillation,” Pan said over the intercom.

“Should make our job easier, no?” Vezeer said. “Look—they’re attacking each other.”

“Everyone, seal suits,” Nihlus said, lowering his own visor. His anxiety about Lantar peaked. Why weren’t they moving in yet?

Saren stood facing the elevator door, fiddling with his omni.

“Sir? What’s the holdup?”

“There’s a high-level security override on the door.”

“Same here,” Farril said. “I’m working on a bypass.”

“That’s why there aren’t any krogan guards,” Saren said. “Someone locked them in.”

Flames attracted Nihlus’s attention. Some of the Blood Pack vorcha had managed to break through to the gunship and were putting up a semblance of a fight. They had flamethrowers. The Blue Suns scrambled out of range. One, bigger and slower than the others—probably batarian—tripped over a varren dashing madly for the cover of the trees, and got his head beaten into a pulp by a krogan who used his shotgun as a club.

“Alright, this should do it,” Farril said. The labored screech of the rusted door sliders reached Nihlus a second later.

“Good work,” Saren said. “Kryik—”

“Sir?” Mirene cut in at the same time. “Got a visual on Okeer!”

“What? Where?”

Nihlus saw him too. He stood out like a broken toe, walking up the ramp unafraid and unperturbed by the chaos all around, his dignity alone making him tower over the other krogan in view, who raged and flailed like crazed beasts. He wore distinctive armor that immediately jogged Nihlus’s memory, complete with the tall helmet to house his millennial hunch.

“It’s him, sir,” he breathed. “He’s walking out the main door. Moving toward the Blue Suns.” He looked up, suddenly distrustful of his scope. “They’re not shooting. Shit.”

Of course Saren had been right. Okeer had been behind it all: the covert attack, the elevator lockdown. Failing to get the support he wanted from the Blood Pack, he had turned to another org. And he was getting away with it.

No fucking way. He looked for Saren, but there was no one near the dark mouth of the open elevator shaft. Gone to join the fray. Damn! “Sir? What do I do?”

“Improvise!”

Yes, sir. Can do. Adrenaline flooded his bloodstream. “Vezeer, lock on to that shuttle with the Thunderstorm. Quick, before they enter!”

“On it, Sarge.”

“Spirits,” Farril whispered. “Look at that shit.”

Nihlus saw it a split second later. A spear of dark energy hurling over the LZ, making the air ripple in widening blue circles around its path. The shockwave hit one of the barricades, sending it up it up in the air, and scattered the Blue Suns around it like toys. Okeer stumbled, but did not fall. His shield lit up four, five, six times as the rounds hit his chest and shoulders. Only then did Nihlus recognize the sound of Saren’s pistols.

Saren marched in the wake of his biotic attack, shooting as he went. The eerie azure glow clung to him like an adhesive liquid. Slow to recover, the Blue Suns opened sporadic fire, and his barrier flickered. He picked up his pace and launched into a sprint—then suddenly dropped on his knees—and Nihlus’s heart stopped dead in his chest—but Saren did not fall. Carried forward by momentum of his run-up, he slid on his knees for a good twenty meters as if the ground was made of ice. He managed to shoot half a dozen Blue Suns and Blood Pack left and right of his path before his slide finally slowed down and he got back up on his feet. But Okeer was almost at the shuttle.

“Locked and charged,” Vezeer said.

“Fire!” Saren said.

Nihlus sucked in a ragged breath. Saren was within the blast radius. He threw himself behind the remaining barricade and then Nihlus got blinded by the detonation. The ground shook and the air roared and rippled. When he opened his eyes, the west half of the LZ was painted bright orange and the tree crowns still swayed violently after the explosion. Black smoke roiled up from the charred remains of the shuttle and the Blue Suns who had been stationed around it. The barricade where Saren had taken cover had fallen on top of him. Fear welled up from Nihlus’s chest, but then the barricade bounced as Saren started to crawl out from under it. Thank the Spirits. Thank the Spirits.

But he wasn’t out of danger yet. The Blue Suns who had been covering the ramp opened fire now. Nihlus shot one. Another fell to a shot from the direction of the east guard tower. Then Mirene and Vezeer opened fire from the cover of the trees too. Feeling the pressure, the Blue Suns started to retreat to the other side of the LZ, seeking cover behind the parked vehicles.

Saren struggled up on one knee and started turning around, as if looking for something. Shit, Okeer. Nihlus had forgotten about him completely. He was still alive, as Nihlus hadn’t seen his corpse in the scorched area around the shuttle. But he hadn’t seen him walk away either.

“Sir?”

There was no answer. Saren stood up and faced him with uncanny accuracy. There was no way he could actually see Nihlus from there. After a second, he raised his visor and spoke. Nihlus saw his mouth move, but nothing came through the intercom. Still holding his pistol in one hand, Saren signaled comms down with the other.

“Aw, crap,” Nihlus muttered. The blast must have damaged Saren’s suit. “Can you hear me?”

Yes.

“But I can’t hear you.”

Yes.

“Sir,” Mirene called. “Okeer’s gone to the jungle. He stumbled down the west walkway. Looked injured or poisoned. Can’t have gotten far.”

Saren swiveled and set off toward the trees immediately. Damn.

“Mirene,” Nihlus said, “go back him up.”

“On our way.”

“What about us?” Pan said. “Do we go in?”

“What?”

“To look for Lantar.”

Nihlus bit his mandible. Saren was no longer in visual and had no way to object. But he had not asked for their assistance. And he had told Nihlus to improvise, which was another way of saying that he was free to do what he thought best, right?

“Go,” he said. “Good luck.”

“You too. Oh, and—” A low-priority notification blinked in the corner of Nihlus’s visor, letting him know that his stims were available again. “In case it’s not so good.”

Nihlus grinned. “I could kiss you right now.”

“I’ll hold you to that. Gotta go now. Our ride is here.”

“Right.” Once they descended underground, they’d be out of comm range too. He was on his own.  “I’ll just… stay here and observe.”

On the LZ, things had only gotten more chaotic. With half the Blue Suns down, the vorcha and varren climbing up the ramp were getting through in larger numbers and soon the firefight turned into a bloody melee. Someone had managed to board the gunship and start it up, but instead of taking off, it crashed down with an awful racket from the altitude of three meters it had attained on thrusters only, billowing flames and smoke.

Rattling of machinery in immediate vicinity startled him. Light had come on inside the elevator shaft, and the cabin was gone. The greasy cables traveled down for several seconds, stopped, then reversed. Someone was coming up.

Nihlus shrunk lower. He slotted back his sniper rifle, switching to his assault rifle, and quickly took a shot of stims. Oh, that felt good. So good. And it was totally necessary. Half a dozen vorcha could fit in the elevator, and they might bring varren, who could sniff him out, and flamethrowers his shields and armor couldn’t stand up to. His pulse quickened, his vision sharpened. He was primed for a fight.

But when the elevator cage came up, there was only one figure in it. A huge, hulking krogan. He wore Blood Pack armor, but his head was bare. He carried a shotgun in one hand, like a pistol. Stepping out of the cabin, he peeled something translucent off his face. Although Nihlus couldn’t see him clearly in the waning light, he immediately recognized the self-satisfied chuckle.

“Yes, I’m out,” Okeer said, putting a hand over his ear. “No, there’s no one here. I told you it would work. Hurry up, now. I had enough of this place for five human lifetimes.”

“Shit, shit, shit,” Nihlus muttered to himself. “Sir, if you can hear me,” he said through the intercom, “Okeer is here. I repeat, Okeer is here. Mirene, do you copy?”

“We’re in trouble, Sarge,” Mirene replied. She was winded. “Many Blood Pack here. And Blue Suns. Everyone’s shooting at everyone. I’ve no clue where the Spectre is.”

“Shit.”

Okeer paced leisurely, peeking around the corners of the tower at the LZ, where things were quieting down. “The east tower,” he said in reply to some unheard prompt. “Wherever. By the time they come around, we’ll be gone.”

Even though he knew better, Nihlus kept hoping for some response from Saren. He might not have heard. He could have been in the middle of a fight of his own, or disabled, or worse. Nihlus pushed the thought away—and then he realized he could hear that wind-like hum again. Another shuttle, coming to pick up Okeer while everyone was occupied chasing after his decoy. Shit!

What to do? Saren wanted Okeer alive. But there was no surer way to fail him than by letting Okeer go.

“Spirits help me,” Nihlus whispered and cocked the safety pin on his assault rifle, cringing, as always, at its loud click.


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