CHAPTER 12 OF THINKER TRAITOR SOLDIER SPECTRE
Nihlus could swear the ground shook when the krogan fell and he hoped to Spirits that the cracking noise wasn’t from Saren’s bones being ground to dust under his weight. He rolled sideways just in time to avoid being ground to dust himself as the krogan turned on his back and swung his massive arms. He was blinded by the glass from the visor Nihlus had smashed into his face, but he could still defend himself. Nihlus groped for the knife strapped to his right thigh, dodged one strike, then another, and finally sunk the blade under the krogan’s chin through the crack in the armor. He had to lean into it with both hands before the krogan stopped thrashing.
“Oh, man,” Pan said, darting past him. Theeka came walking from the same direction. She was unsure on her feet, barely holding onto her rifle, but it didn’t look like she was injured. “Holy shit,” she muttered.
“Any sign of Lantar?” Nihlus said and winced. His tongue was a swollen knot of pain. He had bitten it when the grenade combo sent him flying.
“Not that I’ve seen. But that’s not a whole lot. My head’s swimming. What the fuck was that… thing?”
“A biotic explosion.” Nihlus surveyed the blast circle. Half a dozen dead vorcha were strewn about it haphazardly, some whole, some in parts. “I didn’t know the AOE would be that big. He said like a frag grenade…” on their own. He closed his eyes. Retard. Cretin. Imbecile. Fool.
He wrenched his knife out, feeling mildly nauseated. Dark red blood welled out of the gaping wound, dense and bubbly and sickeningly warm even through his combat gloves.
“Sarge, find me something to put under his legs,” Pan said.
Nihlus turned around and took a double take. Saren was lying on the ground with his limbs splayed at odd angles, obviously unconscious. “Fuck. Is he alright?”
“Does he look alright?” Pan’s expert hands moved with lightning speed over Saren’s neck, mouth and forehead, cracked open an eyelid and exposed an overturned eye. He pulled up his omni and started a scan, then glanced at Nihlus. “What the fuck are you waiting for? Fetch some rock or something. Quick!”
Nihlus jumped up, shook off a momentary dizziness, and looked around wildly. A sudden gust of wind made the ganuts sway. There was a fallen branch nearby, splattered with alien blood. He dragged it over and lifted Saren’s feet on it.
Pan was busy stripping his armor. He cursed, yanked his own hands free of the combat gloves and lifted his visor.
“What happened?” Theeka asked, following behind Nihlus. “Was he shot?”
“No,” Pan said. “Looks like anaphylactic shock.”
“Like from an… allergy?”
“From the vaccine, more likely, but I can’t be sure because his bloody armor is blocking my scanner. Working as intended. Pompous ass. Sarge, gimme a hand!”
Nihlus quickly took off his gloves and felt for the seems and fastenings with unsteady hands. Saren’s suit was a reddish brown of the forest floor, smooth and cold like water. “I told him to go back to camp. I should’ve—”
“What? Nothing short of sedating him would’ve worked.” The jacket finally unbuckled and Pan pulled it open down a long diagonal seam. “I know the type. He could barely walk even before all this crap, but nooo. I’m fine.” Nihlus groped for the line of the underweave. Under it, Saren’s skin was ashen and clammy. Even through the air filters, Nihlus caught scents of sweat, kevlar and Palaven rain pine. The wind rose again and the jungle sighed while Pan continued his tirade. “…because he knows best, right. And if he dies, who they gonna blame, eh? Me. So long, residency at Central. So long—”
“He’s not gonna die, though. Right?”
“I gave him a shot of adrenaline and antihistamines, but—” Pan sat back on his heels and frowned at the readings on his omni.
Pan shook his head. “I don’t know, Sarge. Never seen anything like this.”
Theeka went around them and crouched behind Pan’s back, looking over his shoulder.
“I’m not reading any common allergens or toxins,” Pan was muttering. “I don’t know what I’m reading.”
“What’s all this stuff,” Theeka said, pointing.
“No clue. Looks like some sort of… nano-cybernetics? It’s too small to resolve with the field scanner.”
“Why are they red?”
“Inflammation. Lemme see…”
While they spoke, Nihlus lifted his visor and sniffed the air, heavy with inbound rain. He studied Saren’s pale face. Sleep had stripped it of distrust and slyness and it looked years younger. His chest was hard and warm under Nihlus’s bare hand. It rose and fell with the shallowest of breaths. And then it stopped. Nihlus stopped breathing too. Panic crept up his spine.
“Ah, shit,” Pan said. “He’s in arrest. Come on, Sarge! I’ll breathe, you push.” He fixed himself over Saren’s face, not waiting for a reply.
Nihlus leaned in with all his might. One-two-three, pause. One-two-three, pause. He was marginally aware that Pan consulted his omni, then administered another shot into Saren’s neck between breaths. One-two-three, pause. Theeka had backed off, giving them space. One-two-three, pause.
Come on. You can’t die of a fucking allergy! You’re a Spectre, for fuck’s sake! The toughest badass in the Galaxy. You can’t die like this. This is stupid. So come on! Breathe!
Was he supposed to say these things out loud? Some people did. Some people claimed they heard their loved ones calling them back from the brink of death, and if not for these voices, they would have moved on. What could his voice do for Saren, though? To him, Nihlus was just some common soldier whose name he’d forget within a week after he leaves Invictus.
If he lives to leave Invictus.
“Come on,” Nihlus whispered. One-two-three, pause. “Come on, Saren. Breathe.”
Pan was about to give another breath but instead he straightened up, feeling Saren’s neck. “Got a pulse! Wait.” He watched his omni for several seconds while Nihlus’s head pounded with his own crazed heartbeat. “Ok… ok, he’s breathing on his own again. Good job.”
Relief washed over Nihlus. He sat back and felt for the water bottle tucked in his pocket, absurdly self-aware and blushing. He knew Theeka was watching him. Had she heard his words? Spirits, he hoped not.
“He’s not out of the woods yet,” Pan said, still focused on his omni. “He’s burning up and there’s—”
The ground trembled. A split second later, they heard the ominous rumble of a far-away Thunderstorm detonation and exchanged worried glances.
“Mirene?” Nihlus said over the intercom. “How goes?”
“Well, Sarge,” she replied, out of breath, “I have good news and bad news.”
“Give me the good first.”
“That was the last of this bunch, plus-minus a few who escaped.”
Yeah. Thunderstorm had a way of finishing fights like that. “And the bad?”
“There’s more on the way.”
They regrouped at the clearing with the large ganut stump. Nihlus and Pan had carried Saren back, limp and heavy like a dead man. He had woken up for a moment, delirious, and mumbled something about the tide and the doors. When he started struggling, Pan sedated him. They laid him down between the bags and covered him with a dusty army blanket that sported disconnected dark stripes in places where the straps had prevented the sun from bleaching it.
Nihlus had not moved since. He sat on a bag by Saren’s side, mulling a squirt of medigel in his mouth and fidgeting. The weather was going foul. Wind rose in sudden gusts but it was so warm and moist that it didn’t bring any refreshment, and the clouds were getting thicker and darker by the minute. He felt pressed to move. But go where? And do what?
Mirene came back with cracked armor and Vezeer sported a light limp. Farril huffed and puffed, carrying most of their stuff. Duon had gone to look for Lantar.
“What happened to the Spectre?” Mirene asked.
Nihlus shook his head and spat out. “Invictus.”
He told her as much as he could. Pan was too busy looking at Vezeer’s leg and putting up with Theeka and her headache to come and explain. Not that he was sure of his explanations himself.
“Is he gonna be ok?” she said in the end.
“I hope so. But we can’t stay here, just waiting to be discovered.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“Depends. What did you hear?”
“That this was a half of their ‘task force’. The other unit is somewhere in the area, and on their way. If my understanding of vorcha-speek is to be trusted.”
Nihlus hummed. In ordinary circumstance, he’d call for extraction. Get Saren to a hospital, request search-and-rescue for Lantar, and live to fight the Blood Pack another day. But someone in the HQ was after Saren’s head. He was more certain of that than of his own last name. And even if that person failed to make the evac shuttle crash in some unlikely accident, or spike Saren’s IV with some untraceable poison, Nihlus was sure Saren would be after his head if he took him back to Hierote and away from his mission.
No. They had to press on. Find the Shithole, and keep Saren safe until he was back on his feet. And to do that, they had to get rid of the Blood Pack ‘task force’.
“It’s back to plan A, then,” he said at last. “Farril? Get over here.”
When Farril approached, Nihlus gently lifted Saren’s left arm from under the blanket. “I need to use his omni. Can you get it to work for me?”
Farill crouched next to him and turned Saren’s omni-tool on. They inspected the tiny sigils of the strange log-in interface together. “I don’t know, Sarge. This is way ahead of our stuff.”
“I just need to send out a distress signal with his signature. Don’t need to access any of his files.”
“His signature is his file. Lemme see.” He leaned closer and scrolled through a few screens, shaking his head. “I don’t recognize half the functions. Let’s wait for Duon—”
“You can do it, buddy,” Duon said over the intercom. “The distress call shouldn’t require a log-in anyway. You sure it’s not on the lock-screen?”
They engaged in a technical back-and-forth and Nihlus soon tuned out. He got up and gestured at Mirene. “Go back the way we came and find us an ambush spot within a few minutes from here.”
She started immediately, breaking into a jog as she passed by the trio of Pan, Theeka and Vezeer. Having apparently finished their doctor-patient business, they stalked closer to see what was going on. Theeka’s gaze was especially predatory. She didn’t appreciate being left out. The drunken wobble was gone from her gait and Pan had refused to give her anything but mild painkillers, sticking with his diagnosis of nothing wrong with her despite her efforts to convince him otherwise.
“What are we doing?” he said.
“What we planned earlier. Lure the fuckers into a trap.”
Theeka looked after Mirene, who had already disappeared behind the treeline. “You sent her to scout out an ambush site, didn’t you?”
“I could’ve done that. And better.”
Nihlus grinned. He had her. She couldn’t claim she wasn’t injured because that’d mean she was a whiner who had been pestering Pan for no good reason. And Spirits forbid admitting a foul deed of that magnitude.
“Sarge,” Vezeer said, stroking his mandibles through the open visor. “How did they find us? The Blood Pack. It’s like they knew exactly where we were coming from, and where we were going. How’s that possible?”
Oh, man. Nihlus rubbed the back of his helmet. He owed them an explanation, but it was a complicated subject, one that could hardly be broached without mentioning—if not directly implicating—Thadon, and he didn’t need one more of those discussions right now. Theeka was on the edge already. Everyone pretended to be cool, but they weren’t. They bounced on their toes, flexed their fists and twitched at every sound. This had been the most intense combat situation they’d experienced in the two years of Nihlus’s service here, and they were a man down. It was no time to talk about treason.
“I’ll explain what I can, but not now.”
“You think someone in the HQ is dirty,” Theeka said.
Nihlus sighed. Of course she wouldn’t let him get away with it. What was he thinking?
“There’s gotta be,” she insisted. “That’s why you ordered radio silence.”
“The Spectre ordered it,” Nihlus said, avoiding her eyes and glancing at Saren instead. Talking about him like he wasn’t present, or worse, felt like a betrayal. And it was such a weak defense, calling upon someone else’s authority. But he preferred looking weak over having this develop into a full-blown argument.
“What did you tell him?” Her voice had become icy. “You told him you think it’s Thadon, didn’t you?”
“Don’t worry. If I actually had something on your boyfriend, I’d have come out with it long ago.”
“This is not a joke, Nihlus. Your boyfriend can ruin his life, or plain end it, with a flick of the mandible—” she aped his manner from their talk in Lomera—“if you keep feeding him… your ideas.”
“Theeka,” Pan said quietly, touching her elbow, but she shook his hand off.
“He’s not my boyfriend,” Nihlus said. He had taken an involuntary step toward her. He knew she was baiting him, but he couldn’t let this go unanswered. With Saren right there! Heat rushed up his neck. “And I’m not feeding him anything.”
“Oh, but you’d like to.”
Nihlus inhaled, clenching his fists.
“I’m sorry.” She stepped back and lifted her hands up. “I’m sorry, that was cheap.”
“Damn right, girl,” Vezeer muttered. “What’s got into you?”
“Don’t listen to her, Sarge,” Pan said. “She must’ve hit her head harder than I thought.”
But she wouldn’t drop it.
“Nihlus.” She was looking at him pleadingly now, but it was far, far too late for that. “It’s not Thadon. I know him. He’s a good guy.” Her eyes searched his face for signs of softening but there would be none. He was this close to shutting her up manually. “You can’t let your personal opinions and… feelings… influence your judgment. Or, more importantly, his.” She indicated Saren with her chin. “Ok? That’s all I’m saying.”
He stared at her incredulously. She was saying a hell of a lot more. She thought he would villainize Thadon out of jealousy. That was how she saw him, she was saying. That was how little she knew him. How little faith she had in him.
It stung, deep and cold, like a paralyzing venom, but he couldn’t afford to be paralyzed right now. He shook his head and lowered his visor just in time to catch the first, fat raindrop and watch it zig-zag its way down through the dirt baked on it. Whatever she said after that was lost to the wind.
Configuring Saren’s omni turned out to be more of a challenge than Nihlus had expected. Farril and Duon had come up with some solution that involved a hard reset and a retinal scan, but he had forgotten to mention that he didn’t want a full-power signal. Last thing he needed was to inadvertently invite the evac shuttle of doom after all. A fake distress call, please. For the Blood Pack receivers only. It wasn’t difficult to set up, with Duon to walk him through it. But the interface was unfamiliar, his left hand was clumsy, he was tired and distracted and kept pressing the wrong icons.
The rain bombarded the upper stratum and its drumming sounded alarmingly like a nearby firefight. He kept glancing over the top of the rocky outcrop that was to serve as cover for him and Farril. The place Mirene found was far from perfect, but in present conditions, it was the most they could hope for. Its main feature was the pair of kotari bushes, left and right from his position. They were shit for cover, but good for hiding. Mirene and Duon were posted behind the right, and Theeka and Vezeer behind the left. They had hidden Saren in a dead tree a hundred meters east. Pan was alone with him.
No one had spoken in minutes. Nihlus was hyper-aware of the passage of time. It dragged, like when waiting for the water to boil. His muscles twitched with impatience.
What if the Blood Pack never showed up? What if Theeka was right and all his assumptions were plain paranoia? If it had been a chance encounter after all. It could’ve only looked like an ambush. Perhaps the Blood Pack had an outpost at the Claw, and ‘task force’ was just vorcha-speek for ‘patrol’. Maybe that krogan had said something totally unrelated to Okeer while holding Saren at gunpoint and Nihlus hallucinated it. With everything that had happened in the last twenty hours, would it be a wonder? Yeah. He’d plead temporary insanity when time came to explain why he’d stolen Saren’s omni and dragged everyone out here, wasting time and precious proxy mines. Soldier dies of clinical exhaustion. Postmortem examination points to overuse of combat stimulants, leading to fatal withdrawal symptoms. Attending medical officer under investigation. Witnesses say the deceased was ‘seeing things’ for days, including an imaginary human girl.
He pulled out the precious green stone from its sanctuary inside his armor and rolled it between his fingers. It looked black in the rainy gloom. How he wished he was crazy! If this was all some elaborate head trip, maybe the girl was still alive, and maybe Lantar was not lost. Maybe Saren was in full strength, kept safe from disease by sheer bloodymindedness. Maybe he was out there right now, hunting for Okeer with Dinara while Nihlus rolled around some padded cell in a straight-jacket. Maybe he saw Iana beat the shit out of everyone in a sparring session and called her up to test her gag reflex.
Yeah. Not thinking about that. La-la-la.
He pocketed the stone and stared up at the angular design of crown shyness, waiting for the wind to whip them out of shape and grant him a glimpse at the low-hanging clouds.
Spirits, Lantar. I shouldn’t have sent you. You weren’t ready.
Duon had found no trace of him. Which was better than finding his dead body. But it was a tough pill to swallow. No one in the squad had ever heard of the Blood Pack taking prisoners. Which didn’t mean that wasn’t a thing. Just that it couldn’t be a good thing.
Lantar had been assigned to them as a replacement for Petra, who resigned after taking over the family art supply business. Fresh out of training, Lantar had nothing but remarkable ability scores to qualify him for the IIC’s toughest spec-ops squad. But Thadon liked them numbers. Not for the first time, Nihlus grudgingly wondered if Thadon had ever seen any combat himself. If he could’ve had it his way, none of them would ever see any either. But Nihlus made sure they did. Yes, sir.
Having joined just about the time when they had fallen in disgrace, Lantar had seen less of it than the others. But he was a good scout. Not as good as Theeka, but—Spirits. If Nihlus hadn’t sent Lantar, he would‘ve sent her. And perhaps she’d be the one missing now. The anger, still simmering inside him, did nothing to diminish the horror of the thought.
It was unfair to feel that way and he hated himself for it. She hated him for it too, because she didn’t want to be treated differently because of the… thing they had. Didn’t have. Whatever. And he tried. To not spare her. And he hoped to Spirits the rest of the squad knew that he tried. Because they sure knew about the thing. He was shit at hiding things. Soon enough, they’d know about the other thing too. The new thing.
Just for a second, he allowed himself to think about it, to cast the briefest glance into that weird, yet familiar headspace the Hallori exercise had put him in. An emotion he couldn’t put a label on, something pervasive and exhilarating, pushed up from under his skin like panic or arousal. Saren’s questions replayed in his mind, a perfect stranger taking an interest and poking holes in his carefully weaved shell of carefree numbness. And then the actual panic he had felt when he thought that Saren would die, propelling him to put his own life on the line, no questions asked.
Oh, yes. It was a thing alright. A thing that would, at best, end up a slowly decaying memory of what could never be. Theeka was at least a part of their thing. Saren was as untouchable as the core of a star.
Zap. Back in real life. Farril’s helmet turned to look at him. He must have made some sound or—
“Contacts north-west,” Theeka announced.
“Cloaks up, people,” Mirene said.
Nihlus almost cloaked too, but then he remembered. He was bait. Suddenly his heart was thudding.
Duon muttered, “Here they come.”
And Farril replied, “About fucking time.”
Nihlus detached his sniper rifle and extended it with an aggressive jerk. The trees were impossibly fat in his sights. The ferns and grasses, impossibly close. Agitated into a soundless jitter by the rain, they made his hand twitch left and right at perceived motion.
And then he spotted them. “We’ve got… a pack of vorcha. Classy. And—” one, two, three—“four krogan.”
“Holy shit,” Theeka said. “They really opened up for us.” She laughed like a maniac. Nihlus smiled despite himself.
Vezeer said, “I’ve got something for them.” The power switch on the Thunderstorm whizzed through the intercom.
“Don’t charge it yet. The vorcha might hear.”
“Relax, Sarge. We got this.”
Nihlus looked up over the scope. The first of the vorcha were about to step into their mine-field. The mines were hidden under a shallow layer of earth, inactive and, for all intents and purposes, invisible. But the vorcha sensed something. Smelled them, maybe. They slowed to a crawl, then to a halt, and some of them crouched and sniffed the air. The krogan followed at a more confident pace, wrapped in heavy armor and feeling invincible. One was taller than the others and wore a suit in different colors. Another carried a coiled, silvery whip. He cracked it at the vorcha leader. It didn’t look like it could reach that far but the leader yelped and jumped forward anyway.
“Wait for it…” Duon whispered. “Wait for it… Now!”
Farril was ready. At the press of a button, the mines silently came to life—and then went off in a seemingly random sequence with deafening cracks, belching up clouds of dirt and smoke and shredded plants. The vorcha leader managed to roll away from one explosion right into the motion sensor of another. Bright red blood sprayed Nihlus’s visor as the vorcha’s arm, still gripping a heavy pistol, flew over his head and landed in the bush behind him.
“Fire at will,” he said, looking down the sights of his rifle again. Its thermal sensor confirmed what he already knew. All the vorcha were down. Textbook slaughter. The heat signatures of the armored krogan were too weak to be resolved over the smoking kill-zone. His men laid down a hail of fire, shooting blind.
“On it, Sarge.”
As the wind stirred up the smoke, Nihlus shot the first lumbering egg-shape in his sights. Its shields flickered white and orange, but then it shot back and so did its buddies. Nihlus ducked. The others focused fire. He switched to his assault rifle. When he glimpsed over the cover again, the closest krogan was only twenty-something meters away. He fired and the burst was followed by the satisfying sound of shattered glass. The earth shook when the krogan hit the ground. Or it was the thunder, rolling in from the south. Where was their thunder, though?
“Fire in the hall!”
Nihlus crouched, his heart racing. A nauseating tremor went through the ground with a deep, submarine rumble, followed by a swish of hot air. Flames fanned above his head, lighting the scene in orange and red. The crowns of the phlegmatic ganuts were swept back like human hair in the wind, momentarily exposing a round patch of low-hanging, tumultuous sky. The rain enthusiastically battered the blood-soaked battlefield for a second, and then the branches swayed back in place, closing the gap. Like driving between tunnels on a rainy day.
Theeka was the first to report, and what she had to say was the last thing Nihlus wanted to hear. As usual.
“The fucker is still up.”
Duon hissed, “Watch out!”
Nihlus propped up to see what was going on. The Thunderstorm blast had made a circle of scorched earth and blackened the barks of the surrounding trees. The air was blurry with the heat still emanating from the ground and the charred remains on it. Ashes floated about in random motion, like black snow.
At the far rim of the crater, the big krogan stood. His armor was burned and splintered and he had no weapon that Nihlus could see. He didn’t need one. Enshrouded in flames of black and blue, he roared and heaved a luminous biotic projectile at the kotari shrub where Theeka and Vezeer were holed up.
The Thunderstorm had stripped down everyone’s cloaks and shields. Theeka was fast enough to roll away but Vezeer was hit. He groaned, and the others yelled, and Nihlus lined up a shot at the krogan’s head, but the biotic… thing… around him seemed to soak up his rounds like a barrier. Mirene and Duon tried to get his attention, but he stomped in the direction of Nihlus and Farril, shrugging off bullets like insect bites and laughing loud enough for everyone to hear, never mind his helmet and the rain. He was about to execute another biotic attack, but Duon leaped out of cover and launched himself at him, diverting his motion skyward at the last moment. The deadly wave ripped a hole in the tree crowns almost as big as the Thunderstorm detonation and showered them with torn leaves.
Staggered but still standing, the krogan flailed the fifty kilos of meat in his arm at Duon and sent him flying. Nihlus shot him again and this time he heard the glass in his visor shatter, but that wasn’t enough to stop him. The krogan growled and charged, leaving behind a trail of blue vapor, to materialize on top of Duon with a sickening crash. Farril screamed and clambered up their cover, but before he could get far, Theeka ran up from the other side of the crater, jet-jumped and landed a crushing blow in the krogan’s side, finally toppling him down. The biotic field around him wilted and died.
Farril kept shooting until his rifle overheated.