Old Friends

Chapter 4 of Thinker Traitor Soldier Spectre

This chapter mentions characters and events from Misfire Anon’s story The Other Beginning and was written under the assumption that you have read it. If you haven’t, please do so before you go on! Not only because it supplies crucial subtext for this and a few other chapters of TTSS, but also because it’s one of the best stories for Mass Effect ever written.

Saren’s escorts had deposited him in an empty meeting room in the headquarters of the Invictus Legion, located in the heart of Hierote, the largest city on the south hemisphere and the de facto administrative capital of the colony. The HQ was a tall and slender spire of asari design, all rounded edges and convergent curves, looking down upon the squat, angular buildings that surrounded it with the condescension characteristic of its architects. The artificial lake around it mirrored the strange, deep-blue darkness of the evening sky. Everything else, as far as the eye could reach, was the same desaturated orange as the desert sand. Even the trees.

He had been standing by the window for many minutes, watching the city outside start to light up, and brooding. Saren didn’t like to wait. Disregarding the incident with the IFF protocols, the local authorities seemed efficient enough. Under three hours to dock with his spinning ship, pick him up, land him on the planet and fly him here, which was quite a bit better than what he had expected. But somehow that made this wait more annoying, not less.

He realized he had no idea who commanded the Invictus Legion. Years had passed since he’d been in this sector and his substantial capacity to remember irrelevant information delivered only vague recollections of a relatively recent change of command. He started to look it up on his omni when the door to his left finally opened.

“It was about time—” Saren froze in mid-motion. Were his eyes deceiving him? He blinked a few times, but it was no apparition. Of all the people he could have possibly imagined meeting on this mission, the one at the door was by far the least likely. Surprise had hit him like a punch in the chest and he couldn’t find his voice, moving his mandibles soundlessly like some wet-behind-the-crest cadet on his first debriefing. “Baratus?”

“Saren Arterius,” Baratus enunciated. He stood in the doorway and stared, as if facing, at long last, the indisputable evidence of some unbelievable phenomenon. “It is good to see you again.”

Saren’s was at a loss for words. What were the odds? He hadn’t seen Baratus, nor heard from him, since the day he’d become a Spectre, and hadn’t spared him more than a fleeting thought in what must have been years. Mortifying as it was to realize it, he’d effectively forgotten all about his old friend and benefactor, despite the unforgettable circumstances of their initial acquaintance and subsequent association. To meet him here, now, in the middle of this… most delicate situation… was so incongruous he couldn’t wrap his mind around it for many long, agonizing seconds.

“It is—” he cleared his throat. He intended to follow it up with good to see you too, old friend, but it refused to go out. Instead he just turned around to face Baratus fully, struggling to collect himself. “It is.”

Baratus gazed at him for another beat, then smiled and nodded his head. He stepped into the room, letting the door close behind him. How strange to think that this was one of the few people in the entire Galaxy who Saren used to have no reservations around. Obviously, it was no longer so. He was jarringly aware of the expectation to show, and read, feelings. And of his inadequacy for the task.

“You must be shocked to find me here, after all these years,” Baratus said at last. “More than a decade, isn’t it?” He took a few more steps forward, until they were at an arm’s length, and measured Saren from crest to toe. “You look splendid, simply splendid. You’re taller than me!”

His unguarded awe broke through the membrane Saren was encased in. Before he could think himself out of it, he closed the distance and briefly embraced Baratus, tapping his shoulders. He was indeed the taller one now.

Baratus laughed, returning the gesture. They stepped back, then, and regarded each other with a bit more ease. He didn’t look a day older than Saren remembered him. The texture of his plates was a little rougher, and the ambitious glint in his eyes a little softer. But his posture and movement showed no signs of aging. His dress was impeccable, and his Monasta markings, freshly applied, were as striking as ever. He looked remarkably well.

“You’re taller than your brother,” he said.

Saren shook his head without thinking.

“Oh, I’m quite sure of it,” Baratus insisted. “I never had to look up in his eyes. Though I always looked up to him.” His smile became grave by degrees, and finally disappeared. “You’re also older—”

“Than he ever lived to be,” Saren finished for him. Strangely enough, he didn’t feel compelled to try changing the subject.

“It might sound far-fetched, but not a day goes by that I don’t think of him, and of what happened to him. Even after all this time.”

“I believe you.”

“I haven’t set foot on Palaven for years. I heard they planted lovely gardens around the monument.”

“I preferred it when it was bare. Too many people go there now.”

“Do you?”

Saren said nothing.

“Forgive me,” Baratus followed up in a hurry. “I forget myself. It’s not my place to pry.”

“It’s fine.” It’s been too long since he’d spoken to anyone about personal matters. And he’d never been good at it anyway. “I go whenever I’m on Palaven. But that’s not often.”

Baratus nodded slowly. “Let me guess. You established an official residence on the Citadel because it seemed practical, but you ended up living on your ship.”

“Something like that.”

They stood in companionable silence for a while. Mention of his ship reminded Saren of his purpose here, but he didn’t feel like rushing the topic. The occasion was exceptional enough to warrant a momentary respite.

“And you, old friend?” he ventured. “What brings you to Invictus?”

Baratus lifted his browplates. “Brings me? Oh. I suppose you don’t know, then. I’m in command of Invictus Legion, such as it is.” He smiled apologetically. “I heard about your… encounter with the Justice. She’s going to be decommissioned, you know, and it’s not at all clear when and if we’ll be getting another capital ship to replace her. So she’s still armed, running on a skeleton crew. If you don’t count the retrofitting teams, that is. They’re turning her into a museum.”

“That explains a lot.” Saren suddenly remembered that Justice had taken part in the orbital bombardment of Shanxi, and she had been old at that time already. It was no excuse, of course, but he didn’t mean to pursue the incident anyway, apart from putting in a biting remark or two in his mission report. Perhaps he’d drop it altogether. “But it doesn’t explain how you ended up here, of all places.”

“It’s a long story,” Baratus said, but then took a deep breath and went on to tell it after all. “My tenure on Palaven ended a year after your induction into ST&R. Went back and forth between military intelligence and internal affairs until this position came up a couple years back. It was a promotion I couldn’t refuse, and more than a worthy challenge. Invictus is a mess, Saren, but it was an even bigger mess before I took over. Bear that in mind when you make your requests, as I’m sure you must. I’ll do everything in my power to comply, but…”

“I understand.” A part of Saren wanted to press for details, both personal and political, but it was a conversation for some other time. “I won’t ask for much. I need my ship hauled to the spaceport and fixed. Ground and air support ready at my call. Unrestricted access to information, no questions asked, the usual.” He paused. “Having someone to rely on in charge of local affairs is a more valuable asset than a dozen dreadnoughts.”

Baratus snorted. “That’s a stretch. But I’ll take it.”

“So.” Time to do business. “What’s the situation?”

“Well.” Baratus clasped his hands behind his back. “I have good news and bad news.”

“Give me the bad first.”

“Your krogan might be dead.”

Saren had prepared himself for this outcome, but it still felt like a slap in the face.

“He may have survived,” Baratus added deliberately.

“You don’t know?”

“The Blood Pack took him—dead or alive. I had a spec ops team in the exact area where he landed. They were instructed to take him alive, of course. But the Blood Pack brought in a gunship and there was an all-out battle. And as you know, shit happens in battle.”

“This is no joke, Baratus,” Saren said. “Billions of lives may depend on it.” His voice had all the requisite inflections, but he wasn’t nearly as outraged as he was supposed to be. The same doubts that had almost made him shoot the Wisp down himself, surfaced again. It would all be so much simpler if Okeer was to die.

“No doubt,” Baratus said, raising a hand in defense. “All I’m saying is that the situation went out of control despite everyone’s best efforts. I take full responsibility, for what that’s worth.”

“How can the Blood Pack fly a gunship? This was still Hierarchy territory the last time I checked. Not Omega. Don’t you have AA defenses?”

Baratus tightened his mandibles. “Of course we do. And I don’t know. They probably fly under the detection altitude. That’s hard to do in the jungle, except over water. I can’t tell you anything for sure because it’s never happened before. At least to my knowledge.”

“You said they took him. Where?”

“Their base of operations, I would assume. And before you ask—I don’t know where that is.”

“What do you know?”

An expression Saren had seen a great many times when dealing with local authorities—one of frustration, annoyance and defiance—flashed over Baratus’ face. Saren did not mean to offend him, but he wasn’t going to apologize. Billions of lives did depend on this.

“We know it’s in the same general area where your krogan landed,” Baratus said through clenched jaws. “We may be able to pinpoint the precise location from the navigation systems or the comm logs on his ship.”

“The ship survived?”

“Yes. And the crash site is secured. That’s the good news.”

It wasn’t. Not at all. But Baratus didn’t need to know that. “I want to examine the wreckage myself. I don’t want anyone else touching it until then.”

“I’ll see to it.”

“Good.”

They stared each other down for several more shallow breaths. Then Baratus stood down. He snorted, smiled, and finally laughed. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been around anyone with the authority to question me. An unpleasant exercise, but a good one, I think. You have every right to be appalled by the situation here. Everyone knows about Invictus, but few realize how bad it is until they see it for themselves. Whereas we who live here have become too accustomed to it, I suppose. Perhaps your presence will stir things up, eh?”

“I’m not here to police Invictus,” Saren replied. “I’m not here to police you either. I don’t care how bad the situation is, or who’s responsible for it, as long as neither stands in my way.”

Baratus studied him long after he’d ceased speaking. “I don’t remember you being this annoying,” he said at last.

Saren smirked. “I rarely spoke my mind when I was young.”

“You rarely spoke, period.”

“True.”

The light fixtures along the walls turned on by degrees, a gentle reminder of the inevitable passage of time. Saren glanced through the window. It was almost completely dark outside.

“I said I didn’t care, but—what is the situation? Unofficially.”

Baratus heaved a long sigh. “We keep the cities safe and the orbit clear—but just barely. The tropical belt is no-man’s land. Mostly ran by the Blood Pack, with a few other groups fighting each other for scraps. We don’t have the resources or the manpower for large-scale operations and the jungle is a logistic nightmare. So we train our people for guerrilla warfare and choose our battles carefully. On the bright side, the civilian population has stabilized lately. But the bad reputation keeps off-world investors well away and, as you know, development funds prioritize newer colonies. You can’t have both the omlet and the egg. Looking at the support we receive, Invictus might as well be abandoned already. Unofficially, it’s what any government in their right mind would do. But not ours.”

“Long live the Hierarchy,” Saren murmured.

“Long live the Primarch.”

They exchanged a glance, then saluted as one. A long-forgotten feeling of common purpose and belonging made Saren’s spinal plates rise.

“It really is good to see you, old friend,” he said. “If I get the chance, I’ll put in a word for you. See that you get a new dreadnought, at least. And the latest software updates.”

Baratus laughed. “That would be appreciated.” He seemed to have more to say, but suddenly he froze and his hand hovered over his earpiece. Then he nodded, as if listening to someone on the other end.

“I see. Is he hurt?” More listening and nodding. “Alright. I’ll be there in a minute, with the Spectre.”

“Is it Okeer?”

“No,” Baratus said. “The leader of that squad I mentioned. He’s back and ready for debriefing. I thought you might want to supervise.”

Saren remained motionless. He didn’t want to debrief some stranger any more than he wanted to go to the jungle and hunt for Okeer on foot. He was hungry and tired and distraught by this unlikely reunion. Memories he had stashed away more than a decade ago flashed before him as if it had all happened yesterday. He wondered if Baratus still kept Desolas’s practice sword. Closing his eyes, he could smell the blood staining the edge of his own, from that last time they had sparred together, and he had gone too far. Was he going too far now?

When he opened his eyes, Baratus had a hand on his arm. “How about a dinner after? Catch up properly?”

“I’ll have to move out as soon as possible.” He stepped away from contact as gently as he could, but Baratus pulled back as if burned. “We can arrange it when I’m done with the mission,” Saren added, trying for a softer tone.

“Of course.” Baratus coughed and straightened his shirt. “After you, then.” He gestured at the door.

Saren stayed where he was.

After a moment, Baratus laughed and slapped his forehead. “Right. Told you, it’s been a while.”

He turned on his toes and led the way.


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