CHAPTER 20 OF THINKER TRAITOR SOLDIER SPECTRE
Nihlus sat in the waiting room a long time. Hours, it felt. Not what the clock on the info-holo said, but he didn’t believe a word it displayed. It said it was lovely outside. Warm and sunny. Nope. It was scorched-earth hot and the UV was high enough to make his plates spark. It had taken him half an hour to drive from one end of the base to the other because visibility was the whole of ten fucking meters due to sand. A nasty wind had whipped him with it from all sides. Every square centimeter of his clothes had been made crunchy and abrasive and his eyes still itched.
Warm and sunny my ass. And no way it had only been twenty minutes.
There was nothing to divert his mind. They had taken his omni. A stream of extranet headlines ran over the lying holo but there was nothing there he hadn’t seen a million times before. Eezo prices were rising, batarians were sabotaging the cybernetic warfare negotiations again, vandals sprayed the front of the volus embassy on the Citadel with interspecies indecencies. Local economists speculated on the effects the abrupt change of military leadership would have on the tentative industrial growth. A class three sand-storm was predicted to strike during the night. No shit.
They’d taken his armor and weapons too, of course. It was a wonder they let him keep his damn underwear. The civvies he had found in his locker could have well belonged to someone else. His boots felt a number too small—could his feet have grown in the three months since his last leave? His trousers sported greasy stains, there were several tiny holes on his shirt, and his jacket missed a button. He smelled weird to himself.
He shifted in the hard plastic chair. There was no way to relax in it. He couldn’t lean back because it was too near the wall to accommodate his crest. He couldn’t lean forward and rest his elbows on his knees because it was too narrow. When he had stretched his legs in front of him some minutes back, settling into an almost prone position, the nurse behind the reception counter gave him a look that froze his spinal fluid so he didn’t care to repeat that experiment. He crossed his legs, showering the floor with grains of sand. He crossed his arms too and tucked his head in. He had tried falling asleep before and it didn’t work, but it wasn’t like he had anything better to do.
As soon as he closed his eyes, his many anxieties, old and new, began closing in on him like a pack of klixen. What was he going to do? Where was he going to go? As much as he hated the army, it was the only home he had. There was no one else to turn to. They had disbanded his squad and his men scattered to the four winds. Theeka was off-world already. He had made no other friends, not here, nor anywhere else he had lived and served. In a fit of late-night despair, he had messaged Iana, but she was out in the field, and she would’ve blown him off anyway. And he hadn’t seen or heard from Saren since extraction.
He shifted again, switching sides. That should have been the least of his concerns but somehow it was the most pressing. It stung and burned and ate at him. It kept him awake at night and sleepwalking during the day. It occupied his whole awareness unless he actively focused on something else, and even then it kept running on a background thread. And there was this ancient human tune he’d picked up who-knows-where and when, that haunted him together with it.
We never said goodbye with words,
I died a hundred times,
You’re going back to her,
And I go back to…
I go back to black.
He could just hear Theeka laughing her ass off at his misery. What did you expect, silly? And he’d say, nothing! in that childish, defensive tone he hated but couldn’t rein in, betraying just how much he had allowed himself to expect. How much he still hoped for, despite knowing better. And he’d keep hoping and torturing himself and setting himself up for heartbreak until Saren left Invictus. Nihlus knew he was still here. Everyone knew. His ship was docked here at Trodar, no more than a klick away from where Nihlus was sitting right now. If not for the fucking sand, he could probably see it through the window.
It was a source of constant temptation. He could simply walk over there and ring the door-bell. He knew what he’d say. He’d been over it in his head a hundred times. I just came by to wish you safe travels, sir. Saren’s eyes would tell him all he wanted to know. There might be guilt, for not being the first to extend the politeness. Or unburdened joy of meeting a friend again. Or sheer exhaustion after battling the bureaucracy beasts for three days straight. Or annoyance at being interrupted in the middle of something. And then there might be the blank stare of no recognition and Nihlus would just throw himself under the thrusters of the next scheduled landing.
Yeah. He couldn’t go. He wouldn’t. If he was in for a broken heart, he’d at least cling to his dignity. This suspense couldn’t last forever.
But it definitely fucking felt like it. A part of him wished Saren was gone already. The rest of him was horrified of it.
A strange sound made him look up. At the far end of the hallway, past the reception, a human woman led a small child by the hand. A well-fed, chubby boy with dark hair and pink cheeks. He wore a bright blue jump-suit over everything—as sunscreen—and waved the matching, floppy hat as he tagged along. The woman carried a plastic box full of locally grown silver fruit, decorated with colorful ribbons. There was no similarity between this child and the girl who had died by Okeer’s hand a week ago, but Nihlus was reminded of her sweet smile so vividly his eyes watered.
His eyes watered a lot these days.
He jumped. The nurse had come out of the office and stood before him, regarding him with a kind of pity that was always well meant but never really appreciated.
“You can go in now.”
“Oh.” Nihlus stood up. “Thanks. Where—”
“Third room on the left.”
He nodded and made to leave.
“Sir? Don’t… question him too much. It’s for the best.”
Nihlus looked at his filthy boots. “Yeah. I know.”
“You have fifteen minutes.”
He had no idea where to start counting the doors—they stacked one after the other along the left side of the hallway—but only one was open. His heart started beating faster as the hospital bed came into view. One leg under the blanket, the other in a translucent cast knee-down, held up by a pillow. One hand in bandages, the other laid peacefully over the sheets. When he stepped in and finally dared look up, he found Lantar staring right back.
“Hey.” He smiled. He didn’t have to work at it, thank the Spirits. It came naturally. “It’s good to see you.”
Lantar didn’t smile back. His hollow stare weighed heavy, like a shot-down carrier on an inevitable crash course, hanging low above the horizon. He didn’t look that bad, for a man pulled back from the brink of death not three days ago. The bruising on his carapace was mostly gone and he didn’t seem to have trouble moving his mandibles. All that was left of the gaping wound on his neck was a wide, pale scar. He could have it removed, eventually, as well as the burn marks, mercifully hidden under his hospital gown.
The psychological scars—not so much.
Nihlus swallowed. “How do you feel?”
“Pissed off, mostly.”
He didn’t sound pissed off. He sounded like he was reading extranet news aloud and it gave Nihlus the chills. He nodded anyway. “Has anyone else stopped by?”
“Sure.” He sighed, and cringed a bit at the top of it. “Pan was around during all the surgery, and then he switched with Theeka while I was out. She cried when I woke up. That wasn’t very helpful, to be honest. And later Farril came and briefed me in, sort of, so I figure she had a few other issues to cry about. Not just me.” He looked around, slanting a mandible to indicate boredom. It was a bit forced, but better than nothing. “I don’t blame you, if you’re wondering.”
That came out of nowhere. Nihlus coughed. “Glad to hear.”
Not that he felt particularly guilty. He’d done what seemed appropriate at the moment and even in hindsight, he’d have done the same again. If he’d sent another man out instead of Lantar, he’d likely have another men in a hospital bed right now. Or worse. Lantar was a survivor. Someone of a gentler make, like Farril, might not have lived to have this conversation.
“Have a seat, Sarge.”
Nihlus snorted. “Yeah. Gotta love these chairs.” There were two under the window. He grabbed one and sat at Lantar’s feet, on the side of his good hand.
“I remember.” Was there a hint of a smile on his face? If there was, it was gone in an instant, like a feeble ray of sunshine behind a massive cloud. He referred to the incident from the first weeks of his service, when Vezeer was hospitalized for two days after getting burned by his own shield generator. Nihlus smiled back.
“Farril told me they were gonna disband the squad,” Lantar said.
“Yeah. It’s done already. They were mighty quick cleaning up this mess.”
“So what’s gonna happen to the others? I know only that Farril asked for a discharge.”
Nihlus wiped the imaginary sweat from the back of his neck. “Well. He got his discharge, and a veteran-tier retirement plan. Frankly, I didn’t think they’d let him get away with it, but it looks like Thadon was feeling generous.” Except when it came to Nihlus. “Theeka got transferred to Space Corps. She’s up on the Justice now but from what I hear, she’ll be shipping out by the end of the week.”
“Holy shit.” Lantar smiled for real now. “That’s fucking awesome.”
“I know, right?” She got exactly what she wanted. Unless, of course, she wanted to settle down with Thadon or… something. From what Lantar had said it probably wasn’t all flowers and sunshine. But Nihlus hadn’t seen her since extraction either so he had no way of knowing. “There’s more. Pan was offered a three-year tenure as a resident in Shastinasio Central. I haven’t heard from him, so I don’t know for sure if he’ll take it, but he’d be crazy not to. And Pan’s not crazy.”
“Whoa. That’s some great news. What about Mirene?”
Nihlus smiled even wider. “Mirene’s going to the officer school on Adaxis.”
“Wait. Isn’t that the diplomatic training thing? With the fancy academic curriculum and whatnot?”
Nihlus nodded. “That’s the one. Funded by the Council. One of the surest ways into the Spectre program, I hear.”
“Oh, man. The Spectre. I forgot about him completely.”
Wish I could, Nihlus thought.
“You think he arranged for all this?”
Nihlus looked away. Of course this had occurred to him. But he didn’t want to believe it. Because if that was the case, it only made things worse. Unthinkable. “I’ve no clue,” he said aloud, and it was the truth. He had no clue what Saren might think or want or do. He thought he had figured him out, there near the end, but he had obviously been wrong. “Anyway,” he hurried to change the subject, “Vezeer is the only one going back to the jungle. Promoted to Staff Sargent. He promised to take us out for drinks when you’re back on your feet.”
That probably wasn’t the best thing to say. Lantar’s smile withered. His eyes became hollow again, fixed on something next to Nihlus, focused inward. Nihlus wouldn’t presume to know what he was thinking, but he could do some fairly informed guessing. It might be a long time before Lantar was ready to face the world again, and he might never be ready to face the world he had been a part of before. Concerned friends and family members, pity on every familiar face, unspoken questions with unspeakable answers and everybody perpetually avoiding the subject of what happened to him in there while thinking about nothing else every time they looked at him. They’d have theories, which would be bad enough. But wondering how often and how enthusiastically they speculated about them among themselves when he wasn’t around would be unbearable. After a while, everything and everyone around him would become relentless reminders of the very thing he was trying to forget.
So much easier to simply start over somewhere new, where no one knew you. Where you could pretend the worst experience of your life didn’t have the power to change you forever.
“What about you, Sarge?”
Nihlus looked at him, wondering how long they’d been sitting in silence. “I uh…” Lesson number one, Kryik. “I asked for an extended leave of absence.” A good lie always contains a grain of truth. “To consider my options. You know. Start somewhere new, perhaps.”
Nihlus lifted his browplates like it was news but, of course, he knew. One of his last duties as an NCO of the IIC was to write a spirited recommendation that Lantar be awarded the Silver Wing and honorably discharged per his own request. And judging by how the others had fared, he’d get what he had asked for.
They were silent for a while again. It wasn’t uncomfortable. The sand outside must have settled and sunshine painted bright stripes on the walls through the angled window blinds. Nihlus’s mind wondered off. We never said goodbye with words…
“Don’t you wanna know what happened?” Lantar said at last.
Nihlus rubbed his mandibles, hoping to hide the sudden unease. “They told me not to question you. And I wasn’t going to. But I’ll listen to anything you want to tell me.”
Lantar pushed himself a bit higher up his pillows. He seemed a lot more animated then when Nihlus had first entered the room. “I’ve been over it a hundred times in my head,” he said. “Wondering where I made a mistake. The way I remember it, I did everything by the book. I was wide awake. My eyes were open. My combat scanner was on. But somehow the fucker sneaked up on me. A fucking varren. A bush rustled, and I fired, but it zapped me before I could call it in.” He took a deep, shaky breath and winced at some pain it caused. Nihlus winced too.
“I dropped my rifle. The suit went into seizures. Comms died. Visor died. I couldn’t see shit. It pounced at me. Punched the air out of my gut. I fell back. It was on top of me, going for the throat, but it couldn’t quite figure out how to go about it.” He gestured with his good hand, pointing out his collar. “Probably don’t get to train with turians in full armor much.”
Nihlus slanted a mandible, unsure if it would be ok to smile. His pulse was racing and there was actual sweat under his crest now.
“Eventually, I remembered that I have a knife. I stabbed at it blindly. With my luck it’s a wonder I didn’t stab myself in the leg or something. Got it after a few tries. Managed to roll it off me. But… fuck, Sarge. At that point I was out of my mind with panic. Time seemed to drag but it must’ve been only a couple seconds, because my suit was still dead when I got on my feet. I lifted the visor and saw that the varren was about to pounce again. My rifle was nowhere in sight. I stepped backward and guess what.”
Nihlus shook his head in surprise. Did Lantar really expect him to play the guessing game?
“Come on, Sarge. Guess.”
“You uh…” He made an effort to think about it in earnest. “Stepped into a soft spot?” It was a classic.
Lantar nodded slowly. “I stepped into a fucking soft spot. My foot got caught in the roots. So when I fell over, the ankle snapped.” He indicated his broken leg with his chin.
“You can say that again. Seconds after I went down, I heard footsteps, saw something coming at me, and bam!” Nihlus jumped. “They knocked me out.”
Lantar shifted in the bed again. “See now why I don’t blame you? Because it was my fault. Fear got the better of me. I acted like a damn noob and I had it coming.”
He had evolved from animated to agitated and Nihlus didn’t like it, but what was he to do? Placate him with pleasantries? Talk about the weather? Glance at the omni he didn’t have and declare it was time to leave? He had said he’d listen, and he’d listen. Even if it was the last thing he wanted to hear about. He crossed his arms to contain the shivers, took courage, and looked Lantar in the eye.
But Lantar must have seen through his posturing, because he looked down and deflated. “Don’t worry, Sarge. I won’t burden you with the gory details. I don’t remember most of it anyway. It’s all blended in a blur.”
If it was a lie, it was his lie to make, and Nihlus gave him a serious nod.
“He gave me medigel. That fat bastard, Krago. So I’d live through his fun. I was half-conscious. I think I tried to run at one point? Saw an open door and just bolted for it like an idiot. My leg was starting to heal but then I fucked it up good. Obviously, my ‘escape plan’ didn’t work out. And after that, he kept me tied up. I remember when the commotion started—Farril said the Blue Suns pumped some neurotoxin in the air, but I think there was some fuckup with the change of watch even before that, because Krago bitched about it over the comms. He was alone in there with me. Some vorcha stumbled through the door with another krogan chasing them. One of them had a flamethrower, and they used it. That was my chance to get away.” He lifted his bandaged hand. “It burned through the rope I was tied with. Cheap plastic shit melted all over me. But I was so numb I barely felt it.”
Nihlus swallowed hard. “The vorcha disabled the krogan?”
“Not quite. The fire blinded him. He managed to off one of them and the other… I don’t know. I guess he had a good few whiffs of that toxin too, because otherwise…” He shook his head. “You know the rest.”
He knew something. Pan and Farril reported finding Lantar lying unconscious next to a dead krogan six times his weight, nearly beheaded by the piece of polymer rope he’d apparently been strangled with. That was what Nihlus had written in his Silver Wing recommendation: …where, despite serious injuries, he killed an armed and armored krogan in hand-to-hand combat. Pan and Farril also told him that someone had posthumously gouged out the krogan’s eyes and cut out his tongue using crude, blunt tools. Possibly bare talons. They all agreed such details did not need to enter any official reports. If Lantar remembered doing that, he wasn’t going to brag about it. And the evidence was burned together with everything else in the Shithole, hypothetical survivors included, while they waited for extraction. On Saren’s orders.
I died a hundred times…
You’re going back to space,
And I go back to…
I go back to…
After a long silence, Nihlus cleared his constricted throat. He was about to give Lantar a piece of his mind. Some unsolicited but well-meant advice along the lines of, don’t bottle this shit up. Talk to a professional. Or a friend. A hired escort with a kind heart. Hell, talk to me if there’s no one else. I can take it… I think. Just get it out, like you would a bad tooth, before it festers. It won’t go away. You won’t forget. Trust me.
But when Lantar looked at him, the searing fury in his eyes made Nihlus swallow back the unspoken words. He was glad to see it. It was a hell of a lot better than that vacant expression from before. But he didn’t dare challenge it and just dropped his gaze instead.
I go back to…
I go back to…
After a while, Lantar reached for the remote for the holo projector. “I want my omni back,” he muttered, switching extranet channels. “You don’t happen to have a spare, do you?”
Nihlus shook his head sadly, lifting up his left arm to prove it.
It was another ten minutes or so before the nurse decided to intervene and kick Nihlus out. They spent them talking about the prices of eezo, the possible outcomes of negotiations with the batarians, and last but not the least, the weather. It looked much nicer than it had been when he came, but the storm warning was still on.
He made no promises to return.