Chapter 2 of Thinker Traitor Soldier Spectre
Nihlus gaped at the settlement, unbelieving. Primitive boats lined the riverbank along the makeshift docks, and wooden huts with straw roofing riddled the coast like warts. At least a couple hundred people lived here, hiding from the tropical heat in the shades of the giant ganut trees. Some trunks sported ladders leading up to abodes inside the trees and on their lowest branches, thick enough for two grownups to walk astride. Ignoring a couple of worn prefabs and a water dispenser that stood in the center of a clearing like a phallic monument, the village could’ve been an elaborate stage for a pre-contact movie.
From atop the little knoll on the west edge of the clearing, he could see far upstream the great river Ibiss. Her opaque, sluggish waters flowed toward him. The rippling reflections, dark blue from the evening skies in the east, and bright, fiery orange from the setting sun, caught between the solid margins of deep jungle green, made for a scene of peace and serenity that might have been beautiful if not for the wretched props and actors.
The villagers were mostly women and children of different species: humans, asari, batarians, drell. But they all looked disturbingly alike, wearing colorless rags over dry, bony bodies, wearing absent expressions on sagging faces of unhealthy hues. Malnutrition, rampant imported diseases, and worse than that, a sickening lack of hope.
He would have to report it. The thought made him want to fall through a wormhole and never be seen again. His unit had stumbled upon the settlement while, uhm, taking some liberties with their orders. They were supposed to scout sector A-843, further down the Ibiss, looking for illegal mercenary assets. But they had already combed that area in painful detail on a previous assignment and came back empty-handed. That Major Thadon Eraquis, their CO, would send them there again was further evidence in favor of his utter fucking incompetence. And so, after moving out westward from the LZ like a good boy, Nihlus led his men back in a circle around it and headed east instead, to scout sector A-844, where they had never set foot before.
He had done this sort of thing many times during his two years of service as an NCO in Invictus Infantry Corps. Mostly he managed to get away with it. Faking reports became laughably easy once Duon, his tech specialist, had taught him how to access the GPS data recorded by his omni-tool. Satellite maps of the jungle were a joke, and the only available ground-based surveys were the ones made by the IIC patrols. Which was to say, by him and his men when entering virgin territories. By default, they kept radio-silence and were not required to send real-time updates; not so much out of fear of discovery or interference, but because the repeaters were few and far between in the marshlands of the Ibiss basin and the signal was often iffy under the trees. Usually, all he had to do was say they found nothing. And usually, it was the truth.
But not today.
Mirene, his second in command, and Pan, the squad medic, had made their way to the fountain in the center of the village. Nihlus watched them converse with an extremely pregnant asari. There was gesturing and shrugging, and much more headshaking than nodding. To his right, down the slope, Duon stood together with Farril, their combat engineer. They were pointing out landmarks to one another and looking at their omni-tools. Vezeer, the heavy-weapons specialist, was nestled comfortably between the hardened roots of a nearby ganut stump, with his head tucked deep in his collar and his M-90 Thunderstorm cradled between his knees. Napping. On the other side of the knoll, Lantar was making friends with a small band of alien children. He was the youngest in the unit, barely eighteen and fresh out of training. Nihlus smiled.
“Strip him and he’d fit right in,” Theeka said.
Nihlus glanced at her over his shoulder. Or at least, that was his intention. She was balancing atop a small, flat rock with her helmet under one arm, and the other stretched sideways for balance. The sun outlined her slender figure with a golden glow, and she seemed to float in it. Her eyes shone from the shadows of her face with a light of their own and the gentle sky-blues of her Credo markings looked darker and more striking than usual. So, yeah. He ended up staring. Thinking, I’d much rather strip you.
And she stared back. She knew how lovely she was. How she made him feel. He made no secret of it.
“See something you like?” she said. She turned to face him and lowered one foot on the ground.
That startled her. They grew bolder with each round of the game, but this was a bit ahead of the schedule. A calculated move, to break through her guard. Worked like a charm. Now was the time to strike.
“You still seeing Thadon?”
She deadpanned, then clicked her tongue and rolled her eyes away. Yeah. That’s what he thought. Maybe he had won this round, but he could never win the game. It was rigged, and he felt no guilt for taking pleasure in the small cruelties he sometimes inflicted on her.
Farril approached, eying the situation warily over the top of a map still displayed on his omni.
“She started it,” Nihlus said, loud enough for Theeka to hear, as she promptly confirmed with an exaggerated sigh of annoyance.
Farril lifted his hand and shook his head. Leave me out of this, please. While the others oscillated between amusement and indifference regarding the little drama Nihlus and Theeka arranged for everyone’s viewing pleasure every once in a while, Farril found it distasteful, and missed no opportunities to remind them of it.
Nihlus deflated. “What did you find?”
“Nothing. No vehicles, no machinery, no weapons. Far as I can tell, no comms either.”
“No weapons,” Nihlus echoed. It meant the villagers were paying someone for protection. But whom, and in what currency? And where were they now?
Oh, he had a pretty good idea. But without any illegal mercenary assets in evidence, his ideas weren’t worth shit.
Farril nodded, giving him a long, gloomy look. He turned off his omni and sat heavily on the ground.
Nihlus grunted and wiped the sweat from the back of his neck. Months in the quagmire around the Ibiss had made the gesture automatic, like blinking or breathing. The sweat tickled between the plates and stung where he’d scratched before, distracting him. Every exposed bit of his skin was covered with insect bites, and worse. He had a dark suspicion that some fungal infection was flourishing under his crest. There was no way to stay dry in the jungle, especially this close to the river, where solid ground was as sparse as sunlight.
They had been in the field for almost a month now, playing hide-and-seek in the bush with merc patrols, sometimes passing within earshot. They hadn’t had a single engagement. The only time they had to raise their weapons at all was when a pack of bachelor togo-lizards chanced upon their camp at night. They mostly slept in full armor, averaging three hours a day—and if not for the stims, antibiotics and antihistamines, they would have succumbed to exhaustion and disease after three days, not three weeks.
He was about to sit down himself, when he saw Mirene walking back. Pan had gone into one of the huts with the asari, no doubt to tend to the worst of diseases and injuries. Seeing Mirene’s face was enough to make Nihlus cringe. The sun set her amber eyes on fire and she looked primed to vaporize someone with them.
“You’re gonna love this, Sarge,” she announced from afar, then kept him in suspense until her angry, long strides brought her within talking distance. “They’re living ‘natural lives’. You know, foraging, hunting and fishing for food they can’t eat.” She looked around to see if her raised voice has gotten the attention of any villagers. But only the children Lantar was playing with looked up for a moment before going back to their game. Mirene took a deep breath. “Supposedly, they bring in basic supplies from Farinatti once a week by boat. Which is conveniently out doing the round trip right now, so they can’t show it to us. And Hiel—that’s her name—doesn’t know the name of its captain or any of the suppliers, of course.”
“Uh-huh,” Theeka said. She’d stepped closer and was almost touching Nihlus. He gave her an accusatory glance, but she pretended to pay no attention. “And how do they ward off predators? With shovels and fishing sticks?”
“Supposedly, nothing has bothered them since they settled here. And how long ago was that, I asked? And she asked me what year it was. No joke. And when I told her, she went so pale in the face, Pan had to rush her inside.”
“Right,” Nihlus muttered. “Because ‘natural lives’ don’t include the extranet.”
They traded uneasy glances. Duon, who too had approached to hear Mirene’s report, cleared his throat discreetly. “For what it’s worth, I didn’t detect any emissions I’d expect from subcutaneous cybernetics.”
“Meaning?” Theeka said. The hard edge to her voice could’ve been a leftover from the exchange with Nihlus, or just her default dislike for Duon, who, in all fairness, did tend to flaunt more big words when she was around than otherwise.
“They’re not implanted,” Mirene translated.
“Little good does that do if they won’t admit they’re being held here against their will,” Nihlus said. “We can’t relocate them by force.”
“Maybe on account of non-sanitary conditions?” Mirene mused. “Endangering the health of the children?”
“Let’s see what Pan says.”
Pan was heading toward them in Mirene’s footsteps, but where she had steamed with fury, he seemed just tired and depressed.
“Is Hiel ok?” Mirene asked.
“Oh, sure. In this weather, you don’t need to be pregnant with twins to faint.” To make a point, he pulled out his water bottle and drank. Remember to stay hydrated! “Not her first time, either,” he said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. His combat gloves were sticking out of his pockets. “This is her sixth pregnancy. In the last decade. As near as she can tell.”
Nihlus looked at the children gathered around Lantar, who was teaching them how to fold dry ganut leaves into toy planes. Only one of the children was an asari. Acid rose from his stomach.
“But how do you think…” Theeka frowned and stepped closer. “You can’t make an asari get pregnant unless she wants to, right?”
“Who knows what they tell them. Maybe she thinks she’s doing it to save her friends, or her partner, or her kids. They don’t even know how long they’ve been here, for fuck’s sake. Sarge,” he said after a pause. “We have to report this.”
Nihlus closed his eyes and massaged his forehead. “I know.”
Of course, he had been caught interpreting his orders too liberally before. So far it had been tolerated, because Nihlus had a way of producing results when least expected. Results people up the chain of command could brag with on the extranet. None of that goodness ever spilled over on him, though. He got yelled at and reprimanded and insulted. And when he yelled (and on a few occasions struck) back, he got demoted and transferred and robbed of half his fucking earnings. Which was how he had ended up on Invictus in the first place, this muddiest of all backwaters. Careers came here to die. Never mind that his had been a stillbirth anyway.
“This is gonna be Wolta squared,” Duon said, obviously thinking the same.
Pan snorted. “Can’t get any worse than it already is.”
“Sure can,” Theeka said, “if Nihlus broaches it with his usual charm.”
“I ain’t kissing Thadon’s butt.” Though I bet you’d like to see that.
“I’m not saying you should.” She didn’t have her asshole face on anymore, so Nihlus grudgingly listened. “He’ll have his hands full with this shit. Just don’t be a dick to him and he might let it slide.”
“That’d be a first.”
“Alright, I heard you.” He became aware that he’d crossed his arms over his chest. He probably sounded super-defensive too. Not for the first time, he wondered what he’d do if—well, more like when—they kicked him out of the army.
It probably wouldn’t happen today. This uncharted place was, after all, a result. An important one. The long-crests at the HQ would figure out how to get these people out of here, and how to get them to testify against the Blood Pack. Who else? The Blood Pack owned the jungle. They guarded the village from wild beasts and kept it supplied with food and medicine. And the villagers paid in the only commodity they seemed to be producing in quantity—children.
Nihlus subdued a growl of disgust. Invictus. Worse than Omega.
He could make a difference here, however. By finding the Blood Pack base, which they lovingly called the Shithole, since that was the official objective of this whole bloody half a year’s campaign. But it wasn’t here. It couldn’t be near the river. It had to be under ground, and that required solid ground. Farril had explained it to him: you build shit in the mud, you get sinking shit. Yet Thadon kept sending them to scout the shoreline.
No wonder it was worse than Omega. From what he’d heard, Omega had competent management.
“It’s gonna get dark soon,” Theeka said, waking him from the reverie.
Nihlus glanced back. She was right. The others had scattered around. Pan had said something about surplus medigel and stalked back to Hiel’s hut by the fountain. Mirene and Duon had gone to the docks. Lantar’s new friends had been called home—all except one.
A little human girl asked him something, and he pointed at Nihlus in reply. Next thing, she ran up the knoll and extended her skinny arm, apparently bringing Nihlus some offering. Behind her, Lantar shrugged apologetically. Nihlus sighed and knelt on one knee to be able to look at her.
“You’re pretty,” the girl said, very serious, looking at him with oversize, hungry eyes. Then she chuckled and started turning left and right on her heels. Her hair was matted and her feet, filthy. Still, Nihlus couldn’t help but smile.
“Are you smiling?” she said, mimicking his outspread mandibles with her many fingers, while still hiding something in her right palm.
Nihlus spread his smile even farther. “Yes. This is how turians smile.”
“This is for you,” she said. “It’s like your eyes.”
He opened his hand to receive the gift. It was a pebble of pure, transparent green. Probably an ancient piece of glass, polished by the elements and the passage of time.
“Thank you,” Nihlus said. Her tiny pink hand lingered between his huge, armored fingers, and the contrast melted something deep inside him.
“When I grow up, I’ll marry a tu-ri-an like you,” she said and laughed in a burst of glee, then abruptly turned around to run in back toward the nearest huts.
Theeka chuckled. “Finally, you found your equal in maturity. Willing too! You should take her number.”
“You’re just jealous.”
She groaned in mock annoyance.
“Oh, come on,” Lantar said. Walking up to them, he had apparently witnessed the exchange. “That was cute as fuck. Admit it.”
“I don’t do cute.”
“Oooh, I don’t do cute.” Lantar gathered his brows and tightened his mandibles in a surprisingly lifelike imitation of Theeka’s expression. “I’m Corporal Nantis, I piss liquid helium and shit dark matter, so don’t you dare go cute with me, private!”
Nihlus laughed, but when he looked at Theeka and saw how serious and sharp her features became, his first thought was that they had definitely been out for too long if such a joke could anger her. She usually tolerated Lantar better than most.
But then something told him it wasn’t the joke.
“What is it?”
“Can’t you hear it?”
He realized he could hear it. A low hum, so deep that he could just barely feel it plucking the air in his vocal cavity at first. But it was getting louder fast and its pitch was increasing. Whatever it was, it was coming their way, growing closer and more urgent with every heartbeat, turning from a hum to an earsplitting roar. Nihlus instinctively covered his ears just before the sonic boom.
It was a spaceship on a steep descent. Landing? More like crashing. Theeka was speaking, perhaps even shouting, but he couldn’t hear her. She pointed south. He looked up, and there! He caught sight of it, a fireball with a thick halo of white and gray behind it, hurtling their way at an impossible speed. It was looking right at him. Shit shit shit! He threw himself on the ground and covered his head. Of all the ways to die—
The meteor thundered over them, low enough to engulf the clearing in smoke reeking of oil and burnt plastics. It crashed in the jungle on the other side of the river. Nihlus felt the ground shake, but the anticipated boom never came. The explosion must have been smothered by the dense growth, and all that was left of it by the time it reached the village was a gust of dry, hot wind. A column of black smoke billowed from the spot. What were the odds that it had crashed right into the Shithole? A man could dream.
As he got up on his feet, still half deaf and slightly unbalanced, a V formation of Gampsonics whistled over the scene in low flight. Had they shot the ship down? He hadn’t heard the shots, but it might have happened at a higher altitude.
There was much commotion in the village, with the civilians converging on the docks to stare across the river, hands shielding curious eyes from the piercing rays of the setting sun. Nihlus put on his helmet and said, “To me.”
He brought up the tactical overlay on his visor and scanned the area. There was nothing to indicate a threat, but he no longer felt safe. Motion in the air above caught his eye. Something floated way above the foliage. Something colored in bright reds and greens. A parachute.
“Incoming from the north,” he said, pointing up with his hand.
“The pilot must’ve ejected,” Vezeer’s voice said over the intercom, still gruff from sleeping.
The parachute was still a couple hundred meters above the ground, but it looked like it was going to land right on top of them. “Let’s get these people out of here,” Nihlus said.
His men fanned out over the clearing, herding the civilians away from the river and under the cover of the trees. The villagers reacted readily to shouting and tugging. It wasn’t the first time armed men were telling them what to do. Nihlus made an absent note of it, then peered toward the parachute. It was almost directly above him now, and it was difficult to estimate its speed and heading. Just in case, he walked over to the ganut stump where Vezeer had been sitting earlier and took cover. He extended his sniper rifle. The target was moving faster now, carried toward the water by invisible air currents. Nihlus was trying to catch it through the scope when his earpiece boomed.
Nihlus did a double take. “Major?”
Ah, crap. So much for his plans on easing Thadon into the subject. “Yes, sir. Right away.” He had to lean the rifle on the bipod to access his omni. His heart rate spiked. “I uh… we’re uhm…”
“I can read the map just fine. Unlike you, because you wouldn’t be two sectors away from your scouting zone otherwise.”
“Uh… yes, sir. But I can explain—”
“Save it, Kryik.” Nihlus could hear Thadon’s mandibles chafe and became aware that he was biting one of his own. “A ship just crashed close to your position. Did you see anything?”
“Yes sir. It went right over our heads.”
The parachute was now less than a hundred meters high. Nihlus scanned the area again. There were still many civilians scrambling over the clearing, some entering the huts, which would put them in the line of fire if the pilot proved to be threat. His people were hurrying them up, but there was no way they’d clear them all before the parachute landed. At least there was plenty of cover.
“The pilot may have ejected,” Thadon said.
“Yes sir. Got him in my sights.”
“Listen, Kryik. It’s a krogan, a biotic, very dangerous.”
Whoa. What the—
“You must apprehend him alive. I repeat—alive.”
Less than fifty meters. The pilot was going to land right between the huts nearest to the river and the knoll wasn’t high enough to give Nihlus a clear shot. He turned to see if he could gain more altitude, but there was nothing within reach. His men were still up and about. Get into cover, guys, come on.
“Yes sir, get him alive.” Anything else? A blowjob?
“Don’t screw this up. It’s important.”
Oh, I bet.
Thadon huffed and dropped the line.
Nihlus peered through his scope. The parachute was now only a few stories above the ground. Something was very wrong with it, though. A bipedal form was tied to it alright, only it was no krogan. The helmet was open and… there was nothing behind it. An empty space suit. Still, something was pulling it down at a good pace. Something… Nihlus felt panic crawl under his crest.
“Down! Down! It’s gonna blow!”