CHAPTER 9 OF THINKER TRAITOR SOLDIER SPECTRE
Saren paced up and down the overgrown colonnade. In bright daylight, the jungle outside looked pure, wild and tempting, like a promise of some idealistic adventure. Nothing like the blind man’s nightmare from yesterday. It sprawled farther than the eye could reach, a calm expanse of uniform dark green, unmoved by the light breeze that tickled his crest. He could still catch the muddy, rotten stench of the swamps if he put his mind in it, but the air wasn’t as humid here as it had been under the trees. The sun was still low and the scattered shadows of the ivy hanging from the ceiling were a strobe on his face.
Not having enumerated all of his daily annoyances yet, Sparatus hadn’t taken note. The batarians were trying to stall the cybernetic warfare negotiations again. There had been a shooting in a siaristic temple in Madra on Taetrus. Four civilians were killed, including a human journalist, and the Alliance, determined to make the most of it, were raising a fuss in the media because the shooter was assumed to be a turian. The keepers blocked one of the Presidium elevators for the second time that week. On top of it all, his mate, Falais, was preparing an exhibition on Thessia, which put Sparatus under additional stress.
He let out a tired sigh. “Where are you, anyway?”
“Lomera,” Saren said. “Between the Ibiss River and the Allerleigh Mountains.”
Sparatus’ life-sized face, projected from Saren’s omni and tagging along, turned into a three-quarters profile while he looked it up. “It’s not on the map.”
“No wonder. It’s a failed settlement site from the first wave of colonization.” He stopped next to one of the concrete columns and touched its edge, rounded and smoothed by the elements. “Nothing here but skeletons of unfinished buildings, reclaimed by nature.”
Sparatus snorted. “Invictus. A stain on the emblem of the Hierarchy.”
“Okeer was wise to come here.”
“Haven’t had time yet to go through your report in detail. You’re certain he still lives?”
“Well. That should calm the STG down, at least for a while.”
Saren hummed an acknowledgment. He had walked up to the sun-facing edge. Three stories below, a pair of Kryik’s men lounged between their bags on a projecting balcony. The young one was named Lantar. The other one, Vezeer, was bulky and loud and had chirpy yellow Spens markings. He was in charge of the Thunderstorm and he carried it with him wherever he went. They were playing some omni-tool game. The watch would be posted on the roof.
“How’s the local support?” Sparatus said.
“Decent.” Saren started to mention Baratus, but changed his mind. The shock of the reunion was still fresh in his memory and he wasn’t sure he could talk about it with a straight face. If Sparatus caught onto it, there’d be questions. He was likely acquainted with Baratus himself and he’d insist on having all the details. None of which had any bearing on the mission at hand. “I took a spec-ops team to lead me through the jungle.”
“From what I’ve seen, it’s the only way.”
“That must be frustrating. What’s your next move?”
“Locate the Blood Pack base where they’re holding Okeer.” Saren resumed his pacing northward. Blurred by the distance, bald, rounded mountains rose from the jungle like an island from the sea. That was where the Wisp had been heading. “It can’t be far from where he landed, but that’s the only clue I have.”
Sparatus stroked his mandibles. “You’ve read the STG report. You realize what’s at stake?”
“They’re anxious to save their research, which is understandable. But I think—and so does Valern—that it’s far more important to make sure it doesn’t… get out. You understand?”
Saren gave him a long look. They’d had this kind of conversation before. “I understand.”
“Good.” Sparatus nodded, then shook his head. “I feel for Valern. He’s being pulled apart by the STG from one, and the Union from the other side. What a mess to start one’s career with.”
Saren nodded thoughtfully, though there had hardly been a single sincere word in what Sparatus had said. For one, Valern had been inaugurated months ago, and he served as Councilor Aratralle’s assistant for three years before she retired. He was no rookie. And even if he was, Sparatus would’ve spared him no more sympathy than to a convicted batarian slaver. He enjoyed seeing his colleagues struggle with challenges he thought he would breeze through himself. ‘Being pulled apart’ by agencies with conflicting interests within the same government was as routine for a Councilor as risking one’s life was for a Spectre. Last but not least, the purpose of telling this to Saren wasn’t to convey information, no matter how irrelevant. It was to remind Saren of how grateful he should be for having a friend in Sparatus. Naturally, he assumed that reporting to Valern directly would have been much more of a chore. And he was right. But Saren had many better reasons to nurture their friendship.
Long after the call ended, he kept gazing at the mountains. He was low on energy. The headache had retreated almost completely but he hadn’t had more than an hour of uninterrupted sleep and he had no appetite.
Both he and Kryik had been lightly concussed by the Wisp’s detonation. His memories of the hellish march that had brought them here were fuzzy and disconnected. The jungle made him fight for every step, with ground sinking under his feet, branches slapping his visor and vines catching on the fabric of his armor like tentacles intent on holding him back. More than once, Kryik’s men had to cut through the secondary growth to make a path. And all the while his head had been ringing.
He sat at the foot of a column shrouded in ivy, to resume his work. He had been going through the Wisp’s logs when Sparatus called. They were mostly junk, petabytes of useless information. There’d been no time to deploy a more specific worm during the chase and he’d gone for the brute-force solution. Every tick of the internal clock, every gram of consumed eezo, every minuscule course adjustment, the chaotic forest of nonsense that came through the external sensors during the relay jump—everything was there. But also, communications. Life-signs. And the leftover purchase info.
Saren studied the block of interest for a while before deleting it. This was the only copy of the data and there was no way to ever trace his changes or retrieve the deleted fragments. At least one loose end was tied.
Next he opened Kryik’s service record.
The sheer size of it was staggering. Saren frowned and scrolled up and down to check if there was some glitch, but there wasn’t. Kryik had been in active service for just under six years, yet he had a file larger than most veterans.
Year of birth: 2150. Eleven years Saren’s junior. No, not a boy. Some would say, not quite a man either, but Saren knew better. At Kryik’s age, he was already a Spectre.
Place of birth: Cordis, Attican Theta. The name was vaguely familiar, but it wasn’t a turian colony. That would account for the accent.
Age of enlistment: 16. Older than usual, but not unheard of.
Training: advanced combat, advanced tactical, basic space. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Except his ability scores, which were off the charts. Saren wasn’t surprised. He had seen enough last night to know Kryik wasn’t average. His own scores prior to Spectre training had been better, but not by much. And he had been considered a prodigy.
But past an enthusiastic note from his first CO, half-way through boot-camp, Kryik’s file contained no indication that anyone had ever noticed anything special about him. At least, nothing good. Saren expanded the red-labeled section and his frown deepened. Incident after incident, censure after censure, not a single promotion in five years, even after a good number of successful missions.
In fact—Saren checked again to make sure—all Kryik’s missions had been successful. Such a spotless record was a rare delicacy, but buried under all the red stamps, it had garnered Kryik no recognition.
Saren skimmed through a few mission reports.
“Sergeant Nihlus S. Kryik, Fifth Fleet… while serving as squad leader with the 3rd Regiment… went back to the spinning wreck alone to search for two missing crewmen after general retreat was ordered… commendation request denied… Boarded the pirate vessel through the hull breach, ignoring electrical fires, and disabled its ME core while the rest of his unit feigned an attack through the airlock… surrounded the enemy and destroyed them, allowing the safe evacuation of the hostages… pending investigation for misconduct… transferred to the 27th Marine Division… opened fire without permission and shattered an ancient asari artifact of incalculable cultural and historical value… action diverted the attention of the suicide bomber who could then be safely executed… charges of insubordination… charges of sabotage and destruction of property after overriding the safety protocols and remotely setting an unmanned fighter on a collision course with the mercenary freighter carrying a large supply of minagen… assigned to Company G during the Logasiri Intervention… stormed across the clearing while completely exposing himself to enemy fire and singlehandedly overran the enemy position… moved with his men on his own initiative to flank the enemy… established a final line, not accepting treatment until this was accomplished… directly responsible for much of the company’s success.”
Saren remembered that incident. Pressured into action by incessant human complaints, the Council had launched a small task force to investigate the allegations that batarian mining efforts were effected by thousands of slaves, some of them Council citizens. Upon discovery, a skirmish escalated into an all-out battle and the Hierarchy responded by landing troops under the guise of a rescue operation. It had been a bloody mess, followed by a political nightmare, and the closest the Hierarchy had come to open war since Relay 314.
The wording of that report indicated a positive sentiment, but instead of an award, Kryik got another reprimand: “For reckless disregard of protocol, disobeying direct orders and putting himself, the men under his command and the whole operation in needless danger.”
Saren sighed. He had seen enough to picture the proud sons and daughters of the Hierarchy who had made sure Kryik would never advance far enough to upset their tidy worldview. Being an outsider in the turian army was probably even worse than being a biotic. As a rule, biotics received the dubious benefits of affirmative action, occasionally allowing mediocrities like Vyrnnus to rise above their station and embarrass everyone. But there were no cabals for the invisible people born on the wrong side of the Hierarchy borders. Only unchecked discrimination.
Stirred from contemplation by some sound, Saren looked over his shoulder in the direction of the east stair-well. Voices echoed from below, excited, and a clamor that sounded like close quarters combat. He rose silently from the ground and stalked toward the stairs, fondling the grip of his right-hand pistol. The noise got louder. A shouted curse, laughter, clapping of hands. He relaxed. But now he was curious, so he went on down.
Kryik and his men had made camp two floors below. Their things were strewn at the center of the open, parking-like space between the two staircases. Six of them were assembled half-way there. Pan, the medic, whose smoky green colors of Solemnis were a perfect match with the jungle palette; Mirene, the leader of the second fire-team; Theeka, the girl with the dislocated shoulder; the young man and the big man he’d seen from his perch earlier; and Kryik. Mirene and Vezeer were apparently engaged in a duel, while the others cheered.
No one had seen Saren come down the stairs. And they wouldn’t, as long as he made no sudden movements. He had painstakingly cleaned his chameleon armor, and it was optimized for urban environments. For a while he stood still, observing, then slowly lowered himself into a crouch and sat down to watch.
Vezeer had an unfair weight advantage. A clip with his heavy hand would be enough to knock Mirene out. But she was small and fast and she circled around him, effortlessly evading his jabs. Finally he lost his patience and lounged at her with speed and agility Saren would not have expected of a man that large. His punch missed her by a millimeter as she threw herself on the ground to capitalize on his mistake by kicking his back leg from under him.
The floor shook when Vezeer fell down. The others erupted in applause and laughter. Mirene hopped up, light as a feather, and offered a hand to Vezeer, who lay stretched out as if he’d been shot point-blank.
“Get off your butt, pretty boy.”
He took her hand and she pulled him up. The top of her head barely reached his shoulder. “I’ll never learn,” he said. “I mean, what was I supposed to do? She was making me dizzy.”
That was addressed to Kryik. “You had the right idea. Just need to work on the execution. She could take you down because your balance was compromised, otherwise she’d be toast.” He turned to Mirene. “That was risky. Fancy as fuck, but dangerous. If he managed to land on you…” He drew the back of his thumb over his throat.
Mirene laughed. “The day he lands on me!”
Everyone else laughed with her, Vezeer the loudest. But not Kryik. “Underestimating an opponent twice your size is the worst mistake you can make in hand-to-hand. He could crush your skull with a single blow and you’d need to beat him for half an hour to knock him out bare-handed.”
Saren found himself nodding. Kryik was right. And it would become acutely relevant once they found the Blood Pack lair. If that had been a krogan, her kick would’ve been completely ineffective.
He sighed and was about to get up and leave, when Vezeer said, “Show us, Sarge. You be the big guy and—”
“Me, me, me!” Theeka leaped in the center of the circle, putting her fists up in mock challenge.
Saren settled back. This might be interesting. In Kryik’s file, hand-to-hand was checked as his foremost specialization.
“You sure?” Kryik squared his hands. “Your shoulder—”
“Fuck, yeah. Look.” She made wide circles with her right arm, then threw a couple quick punches in the air. “All good. Pan, tell him.”
The medic was sitting on the floor with feet tucked under his knees. He looked up at Kryik. “Well, you’re not gonna twist her arms or anything. Right?”
“I don’t plan to…” Kryik said. His back was turned to Saren so it was hard to tell if he was serious. “But when someone doesn’t know when to quit—”
“I’ll be good,” Theeka said with a wide smile. More of a sneer, really. “I promise.”
Kryik shook the shirt of his underweave off and tied the sleeves around his waist, then took position in the circle, finally stepping in Saren’s view. He was built like a model. Perfect proportions. Saren leaned forward, squinting. Every curve, symmetric. Every muscle, defined. And when he started moving, they rippled under his smooth, dark his skin like water.
Theeka wasn’t as petite as Mirene, and Kryik wasn’t as large as Vezeer, but he still had more reach. They circled each other briefly, maintaining eye-contact as tangible as if there was a wire stretched between them. Theeka tried a faint but Kryik didn’t buy it. Then he tried a faint that she didn’t buy. For now, they seemed about evenly matched.
Then Theeka lurched forward with blinding speed. For a moment it looked like she had Kryik by surprise, but he blocked her right jab, which had been a faint, and her left cross, which had been for real, and pulled back his own uppercut a split second before it reached her chin and knocked her out. She froze.
“Again,” Kryik said and stepped back.
This time she tried a different approach, leading with a side-kick aimed at Kryik’s temple, but he leaned back and swiveled behind her before her foot returned to the floor.
And again and again she attacked and he evaded or blocked, but never retaliated. Not that she wasn’t good. In most settings, someone with her skill would be considered a hand-to-hand specialist. She knew many good moves and didn’t make any glaring mistakes, but she couldn’t touch him. After a while, Kryik invited Lantar to join in and fought them both with equal ease.
Saren watched, fascinated, and his body twitched involuntarily, mirroring Kryik’s moves. Low block, high faint, duck and roll, pivot and punch. It was almost exactly what Saren would have done. Kryik lounged at Theeka and she repeated the move Mirene had pulled on Vezeer, but Kryik’s balance was impeccable and when her kick recoiled off his leg he threw himself forward instead of falling backward and landed on her back, making first solid contact. Lantar moved to grab him by the shoulders from behind and Saren almost yelled a warning. But Kryik knew. He lashed back with his right arm and stopped just short of breaking Lantar’s jaw.
There was no cheering and applause this time. In the sudden hush, Saren could hear his own excited heartbeat.
“Always a pleasure to watch you show off, Sarge,” the medic said. “But you make a shitty ‘big man’. No way a krogan could move that fast.”
Kryik got up and stepped away from Theeka with what seemed like exaggerated caution.
“She didn’t give him much choice,” Mirene said.
“Fuck you all,” Theeka said, still lying on the ground. She sprang up on her feet and looked at Kryik with murder in her eyes. “Fuck you, Nihlus.”
For a moment, Saren thought she’d attack again, and apparently Kryik had the same idea because he instinctively turned his profile to her. But she just showed him her teeth and stomped off in the direction of the other staircase.
Kryik shook his head. “Can someone please remind me never to spar with her again?”
“Can’t you just let her win sometimes?” Vezeer said.
Kryik laughed. “Yeah, right. She’d slit my throat in my sleep if I tried.”
“Then you should train her,” the medic said.
“What do you think this was?”
“A show for the Spectre?” The medic gestured in Saren’s direction without looking and Saren felt heat rise up his face. He had been sure no one had detected him.
Everyone looked his way now, and apparently the medic was not the only one who’d noticed him. Mirene and Lantar both glanced at him with a casual certainty of complete awareness. Vezeer had to turn and look over his shoulder, but didn’t seem to have trouble spotting him. Only Kryik’s eyes swept the space searchingly. Embarrassed out of proportion, Saren lifted his ungloved hand to cut short the awkwardness.
“Oh.” Kryik’s eyes became comically round. If he’d seen Saren sitting there, he was very good at pretending otherwise. “Ho,” he said and waved back.
The others burst in laughter. Saren shook his head, getting up. He motioned Kryik to follow him and went back up the stairs.
It was noticeably warmer on the fifth floor, despite the breeze. He unsealed his armor down the long seam from the right shoulder to the left hip, then picked up the water bottle from his bag and drank as if he’d been working out himself.
Kryik didn’t show up for several minutes and Saren was about to ping him over the intercom when he heard his careful steps coming up the stairs. He turned around and promptly forgot whatever it was he’d opened his mouth to say.
Kryik carried and armful of… fruit. There was a melon-sized thing with violet stripes, and a couple peach-like things of pale blue, something green and elongated, and several large purple berries. Saren glanced up at Kryik to find him staring at his half-open jacket with loose mandibles.
“What?” he said. It came out like a bark and Kryik jumped. One of the peach-things dropped from his embrace and rolled over to Saren’s feet.
“Sorry, sir,” Kryik muttered, and before Saren could stop him, bent down to pick it up, which inevitably caused all the other fruit he’d been holding to scatter around. “Aw, crap. Sorry!”
“No need—” but Kryik was already busy chasing down and collecting the fruit. Saren could barely hold back laughter. He leaned down to pick up the blue peach that had started the avalanche, but as his hand closed around it, Kryik’s hand closed around his. Hot and sweaty. They were both without gloves. The familiar discomfort sparked in Saren’s chest but Kryik backed off first, as if he’d sensed it.
“Sorry,” he said for the third time. He went on to mutter a mantra of self-deprecating adjectives as he carefully straightened up with his treasure secure in his arms. Stupid, lame, clumsy ass.
Saren rubbed the peach against his underweave, hiding a smile. “Wild-grown?”
“Yes, sir.” Kryik looked about ready to faint with embarrassment. “Safe to eat,” he added.
“Oh, yes, sir. We’ve been eating wild-grown things for years now and—” he deadpanned. “That was a joke.”
Saren smirked and bit into the peach. It was… not what he had expected. It was savory, squishy and sour. But it wasn’t bad. Not bad at all. He ate it in three mouthfuls. Kryik stood in front of him, sweating and shifting weight from one foot to the other like he was on an exam.
The peach had a woody, hairy, pebble-sized seed. Saren rolled it between his fingers a bit, then flicked it through the nonexistent east wall, giving it a tiny whiff of biotic lift. It ascended for a good twenty meters before it briefly hovered and started down. Right. High gravity. He’d expected it to make twice as much.
“Whoa,” Kryik whispered. Saren turned to see a wide smile of dreamy awe on his face. “That’s so cool.”
And just like that, Saren was again the embarrassed one. He cleared his throat. “Did you bring all of that for me?”
“Yes, sir. We’ve got plenty more.”
“Drop them in my bag.”
While Kryik was at it, Saren spied one of the berries still lying on the floor and picked that up too. He blew the dust off, then ate it whole. Sweet and juicy. “This is excellent. Thank you.”
“Any time, sir.” They regarded one another briefly. “I hope we didn’t wake you up?” Kryik gestured at the stairs behind him. “With the noise.”
“I was up already. And I hardly slept anyway.”
Kryik smiled. “My first few patrols, I couldn’t sleep either. Everything bugged me. The shadows, the noises… the smell. As soon as I’d close my eyes I could feel critters falling on me, crawling on me. And most times, they did.” He mimed a disgusted shiver. “Nowadays… I can fall asleep standing up. In the rain. With a snake in my collar. Well, ok. Might’ve exaggerated there a bit. But just a bit.”
“I don’t intend to stay here long enough to adapt.”
“Yes, sir.” Kryik laughed. “That’d be my choice too. If I had a choice.”
“No one’s forcing you to serve, Kryik.”
“Uh-huh. And what else would I do? Run with the mercenaries? Strip at a night-club?”
Saren raised a browplate.
“It’s what my ex CO suggested when she handed me the transfer writ.” Kryik shrugged, then slanted a mandible and gave Saren a seductive look. “What, you don’t think I could do it?” He shook his shoulders, rocking to and fro in a shockingly veracious imitation of an asari pole-dancer. To finish the show, he kicked out his left leg and crossed it over his right making a smooth, flashy pirouette. Then he just stood there, blinking at Saren with a silly smile. Waiting for applause?
After a few uncomfortable seconds, Kryik dropped his eyes, as well as the posture. “Sorry, sir. I tend to act inappropriately when I’m nervous.”
“Why are you nervous?”
“Ok…” He cleared his throat. “It’s mostly the stims right now? I have a bit of a… habit, and since they interfere with medigel, Pan locked me out for a day.” Kryik absently caressed his left wrist, where the omni-tool would be slotted on his armor. “Anyway, that kind of makes me sluggish and edgy at the same time, you know? And, well… talking to senior officers has a way of getting me in trouble. Not that I’ve ever talked to any of my senior officers like this.” He indicated awkwardly at the space between them. “Usually it’s just push and pull. I’m told to do something profoundly stupid, I say nope, I get my ass ground down, after which I care even less, and so it goes, again and again. Though I guess there will be an end to it. These may well be the last days of my permanent employment. If they don’t turn out to be the last days of my life.”
He talked too much. Saren waited, trying for an expression of polite interest. Three… two… one…
“Probably just a matter or time, though,” Kryik went on. “I haven’t had an opportunity to disagree with you yet. Oh, wait.” He laughed. “I guess I did, on the Wisp. But that wasn’t… serious. Was it?”
“You can disagree all you like, Kryik. As long as you don’t stand in my way.”
“Yes, sir.” He pressed his mandibles close and stared down. “I haven’t forgotten, sir.”
That seemed to shut him up. Saren turned by a few degrees to face the breeze. There was some cloud cover now, but the heat was mounting and his underweave was wet. A large red insect settled on his shoulder, and he brushed it off, gently. Never kill without a reason.
“Competing in martial arts might make for a decent living,” he mused. “More than decent, for top-ranked athletes.”
“I’ve seen you fight. You must have trained professionally.”
“Oh, right.” Kryik shook his head as if to clear it. “How long were you… watching us?”
“Answer the question.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry. I uh… yes, I suppose I did train professionally. Before enlisting. It was a long time ago.”
“What did you specialize in?”
“Mostly Hallori, sir.”
Saren grinned, congratulating himself. He knew it.
“I was actually quite good at it, sir.”
No doubt. But he wasn’t going to attempt righting the silly misunderstanding. “Did you compete?”
“Uh… yes, sir. I won every local competition I took part in. Qualified for the Colonial Open in ‘65 as the first seed. But uh… I never got there. Enlisted instead.”
Saren studied him. He didn’t look nervous anymore, but he certainly didn’t sound as enthusiastic about his accomplishments as could be expected. A good placement in the Colonial Open would have given him a chance to compete at the pan-cluster level, on Palaven, against the Hierarchy’s best.
His curiosity piqued, Saren started to ask what had stopped him from getting there. But Kryik gave him a harassed, pleading look, and Saren closed his mouth. He could look it up later.
“Surely you didn’t stop training altogether,” he said instead.
“Not altogether. I train the standard stuff with everyone else. As much as I can.” He smiled, gesturing toward the stairs again. “But it’s—”
“Hard to find a partner for Hallori.” It was hard enough in the upper tiers, let alone among the rank and file. Few considered it a martial art to begin with. Baratus didn’t. Even Desolas had only pretended to take it seriously to humor his little brother.
“…yes, sir.” Kryik’s expression changed as understanding finally dawned on him. “Do… you practice?”
“Not as often as I’d like to.”
“I knew it.” Kryik’s mandibles spread slowly into a victorious smile. “I fucking knew it! Sorry, sir. But I knew there was something familiar about the way you move. Last night, when we were approaching the crash site? I couldn’t put my talon on it because there was too much going on, but I recognized… something. You know?”
Lacking the words to describe it, Kryik hopped a few steps away from the stairs with newfound energy and executed a pass from the second form. It was a quick, simple and elegant move that embodied the elusive fluidity of the Hallori better than any Saren could have come up with if pressed to give a demonstration. It was flawless.
It was irresistible. Saren held his breath, momentarily paralyzed. His mind was strangely silent, his body strangely tense. Eager! It had been years since he’d done Hallori himself and he felt a sort of stage fright. Before he could think himself out of it, he walked over to where Kryik was standing, took the starting position for warmup, and beckoned with his talontips, issuing a challenge.
After a moment’s pause, Kryik took it. They exchanged the moves from the first form slowly, methodically, without breaking eye contact and without another word. Kryik assumed a studious countenance quite different from the frivolous persona he’d presented minutes before. His breathing became synced with the motion, deep, regular and relaxed. And so did Saren’s. The headache, the exhaustion, the heavy burdens he’d brought with him to this mission, it was all put on hold while they performed the exercise. That was its nature, its attraction, its liberating power. But also its toll. It took perfect coordination and total commitment—else one or both participants got hurt.
Kryik was probably thinking the same, because they stopped in unison and did not start the second form. They just stood there, facing one another, in companionable silence. Kryik did not speak. He looked dazed. Saren felt dazed himself. He felt like laughing. But that would hardly be appropriate.