CHAPTER 22 OF THINKER TRAITOR SOLDIER SPECTRE
Nihlus left the base on a public transportation shuttle. He could have taken the military subway but this way he got to see Saren’s ship one last time, still parked in the spaceport, peeking through the sandy air like a faint star in the middle of a dusty nebula.
You went back to
what you knew
So far removed
From all that we went through
And then it was over. He was out of Trodar for good. He would never see the distinguished turian Spectre again. His heart ached, but not as horribly as he had expected, and suddenly all those other, more urgent problems, came into sharp focus. For example, where was he going to sleep tonight? And what was he going to eat tomorrow?
The shuttle landed half a block from the HQ. Nihlus had never walked there before, nor tried to gleam the top of the spire from ground level. It was hidden by the sand-haze from twentieth floor upward. Oh well. He’d have plenty of opportunities to try it again, now that he was a full-fledged pedestrian. The wind sprayed the water from the fountains over the sidewalks and the dust on his boots turned to mud. There was a boot-cleaning bot by the entrance but he couldn’t afford it. In his mind, he sneered at Theeka. See? No way I’ll end up cleaning shoes. Those jobs are already taken.
And I tread a
My odds are stacked
I’ll go back to black
In the meantime, Thadon had moved up in the world. He had preemptively taken residence in the ex-General’s office. It was a very nice office, with floor-to-ceiling windows that undoubtedly offered a prime view of the sparse Hierote skyline when the weather allowed. The glass was shaded now, giving the large room a dusky atmosphere. A colorful workstation of a busy man faced the door. There was a comfy-looking couch with a couple of deep armchairs, a low table and what looked like a drink cabinet on the other end. Several packing boxes were arrayed in the middle of the room, resting on the lush green carpet. Some seemed half-empty, other had miscellaneous objects poking out over the top. Something that looked like an ancient musical instrument. A frame with a still-pic in it, matching the yellowish outline on the blank white wall behind the couch. A decorative lamp with faded floral motifs. A round, fluffy cushion.
Thadon was lowering a stack of hard-copies into one of the boxes when Nihlus came in. He looked up, then focused on topping the box with irregular crumbs of packaging foam, closing and sealing it, without a word. Nihlus waited. At last, Thadon straightened up and dusted off his hands.
“The General left in a hurry,” he said, gesturing at his handy-work.
And the vultures sure wouldn’t be late to the party, Nihlus thought. He just nodded, though.
“Have a seat.” Thadon pointed at a pair of chairs facing his new desk. “Would you like something to drink?”
Nihlus made a point of clasping his hands behind his back and staying where he was. “No, thanks.”
Thadon regarded him for a second, then nodded. “Suit yourself.” He walked to the desk and sat down. He pushed an envelope to the side and put a pencil inside a drawer, glanced at his screens and dismissed something that had been shining a red light on his face. Stalling.
“Sit down, Kryik. Please.”
Nihlus deflated. If not for the ‘please’, perhaps he could’ve dredged up enough energy to remind Thadon that he was no longer obliged to take his orders, blah blah blah. But he definitely didn’t have enough energy to be plain rude. He sat down.
“So. What do you want?”
Thadon took a deep breath. “To apologize.”
“I wronged you, Kryik. And I want to explain why.”
“Why not just… undo it instead? Reinstate me. Should be brain-dead simple, coming from this high up the chain of command.”
Thadon slowly shook his head. “I can’t. I’d like to, but it wasn’t my decision in the first place.”
Huh squared. “So you’re saying, someone else relieved me of duty till further notice.” Nihlus was quite sure he had seen Thadon’s signature on the orders.
“I’m saying that I was ordered to do so. But that’s not what I want to apologize for. Please,” he hurried to say before Nihlus could go on with his next question, “let me explain.”
Nihlus leaned back and crossed his arms. “Alright. Explain.”
Thadon took a deep breath. “I don’t know if you’ll remember, but not long after you were transferred here, you came to me with a… suspicious document.”
“The Hegemony arms trade deal with Stellar Wind Trading. Of course I remember.”
“It was the first time you and I spoke. I remember every word of that conversation. And the look you gave me when I corrected the security label on it and passed it back to Administration.”
Nihlus shrugged. He was never much into hiding his feelings, especially his dislike for stupidity.
“You assumed I never even looked at it. You assumed I acted like a textbook clerk with a pronounced case of tunnel-vision. You concluded I was as stupid as one can possibly be at this tier. Am I right?”
This was getting weird, fast. Nihlus kept his mouth shut and his face in check, struggling to hold Thadon’s strange, intense stare.
“It’s alright,” Thadon said. “I wasn’t offended. See, Nihlus—may I call you Nihlus?”
“Uh…” What the fuck? “Sure. Whatever.”
“Thank you. See, being considered stupid is an incredibly strong position in our culture, yet few people make use of it. For obvious reasons.” Thadon peered at him. “In hindsight, I was lucky to be dismissed by you so quickly and so completely based on that one incident. Theeka always insisted you were a good judge of character otherwise. I had to put in a lot more work into making others believe it. Especially the General.”
“I don’t follow. What—”
“General Malivian was in charge for just under a year when you appeared with that document. It was the first time something of that magnitude slipped, but I had my suspicions long before. It was paramount that he never suspects I suspected him until I had something solid. Otherwise he’d just have me demoted, transferred, or worse.”
“That contract wasn’t solid enough?”
“As evidence of corruption, certainly. As evidence indicating the General? No. There was no mention of his name in it, or in any of the documents trailing behind it.” Thadon grinned. “By now you realize I did read it. Quite thoroughly. Saved a copy with multiple backups too. As a part of a growing body of evidence, all circumstantial. The General is by no means a stupid man himself.”
Nilhus massaged the back of his neck. “Ok. So you made everyone believe you were just a bureaucrat with a stick up his butt, while in secret you spied on the General. Which is pretty sly and all, but what does it have to do with me?”
“I’m getting to it.” He looked around and smoothed his crest with both hands. “I need a drink. You sure you don’t want one?”
Like they were buddies all of a sudden. It was creepy as hell. Nihlus shook his head.
Thadon went to the drink cabinet and came back a minute later with a fancy glass and half a finger of some classy-looking blue liquor in it. Nihlus just watched him, mind strangely silent and devoid of speculation on the subject of their talk. He wondered, instead, if Saren’s ship was still in the spaceport, and if he could catch it using the sight-seeing telescopes on the mess-hall balcony, what with all the sand. Nonsense. They wouldn’t let him in there now.
I go back to…
I go back to…
“I’m sure you also remember Wolta,” Thadon said after taking a sip. “That was when I realized your potential. Not sure how to put this without offending you, but I don’t mean your success rates and your ability scores. I mean your… bloodymindedness. You probably think it’s a virtue. But make no mistake: it’s a flaw, and one that’s easily exploited.”
Nihlus shifted in the chair. Suddenly the air was too warm and stuffy and the room no longer seemed all that spacious. “What do you mean?”
“You were so bent on deviating from your orders.” Thadon shook his head with that flammable mix of pity and concern on his face that had ignited so many of their stand-offs in the past. “No matter how trivial the task was, no matter how straightforward the instructions—you always had to something different. Something to make it your own. To somehow make it look like you’re the one in control, and not—”
“Get to the point.”
“The point is… you were predictable. I started to notice it fairly early, but it wasn’t until Wolta that I realized how I might use it. Contrary to what you believe, Nihlus, I was never really bothered by your struggle for control. In some other circumstance, I’d have encouraged your independence and original thinking. But I needed you to defy me. As often and as loud as possible. I wanted everyone to know about it. Specifically, I wanted the General to know about it.”
The weirdness was starting to take form. A monstrous form. Nihlus could see its spiked outline emerging from Thadon’s shadow but too many details were missing to put together a complete picture. “First,” he said, trying to sound calm and disinterested. “Malivian is no longer a general. Stop calling him that. Second: explain about Wolta before you go on.”
Thadon leaned back in his chair, looking at Nihlus searchingly. “You really don’t see it?”
“No, I fucking don’t.”
“Alright.” He took a gulp of his drink. “Wolta was critical in many ways. The tip came from the police. Civilians reported armed krogan coming in and going out of that abandoned station. It went through so many hands on the way up here that there was no way for the Gene—for Malivian to maneuver around it. Of course, he took charge of the operation. I was relaying his orders to Dinara and you, and that’s when it hit me. It’s Kryik, I was thinking. If I tighten the leash enough, he’s bound to take matters into his own hands.”
Is he baiting me? Nihlus couldn’t tell. If it was on purpose, it sure worked. A bitter anger was starting to burn in his chest.
“I was supposed to get you to secure the west warehouse, and Dinara the east, while the police entered the main building. It looked like a fine plan on paper, and Malivian didn’t think a stupid bureaucrat with a stick up his ass would bother checking the satellite footage unless instructed to. But I did. And there was another building—”
“—to the north,” Nihlus said in unison with him. He remembered it as if it had been yesterday.
Thadon nodded. “I couldn’t tell you to go there and check it out, you understand. But I could tell you not to.”
“Spirits.” Nihlus swept a hand over his face. The anger retreated in front of astonishment. Could he have been so stupid? He couldn’t remember the orders word for word but they were so specific, so perfectly tailored to make him look like an incompetent idiot incapable of doing anything without being hand-held, that there was no fucking way he could’ve just taken them. In refusing to be used like a blunt tool, he had allowed Thadon to play him like a fine-tuned instrument instead. Way to go, Kryik, my man. Way to go.
“And you didn’t stop there, did you,” he said. “You manipulated the living shit out of me.” He laughed, surprising himself. How could he have been so blind? “All those stupid vectors and waypoints and arguments over directing my every fucking step. All the shitty missions in random parts of the jungle.” It was hilarious. “And still we somehow got to see more action than any other squad and—and I was stupid enough to think it was because I’m just so fucking good at it!”
Thadon watched him until the laughs subsided. “You are fucking good at it,” he said slowly. “Everything depended on you being fucking good at it. If I had the authority to send you north of the Ibiss, we would’ve found the Shithole months ago. But I didn’t. All I could do was deploy you to locations that wouldn’t arouse suspicion, encourage you,” he used air-quotes, “to deviate from the deployment pattern, and let you take the blame when the shit hit the fan.”
Nihlus stared at him a long time, unsure how he felt about any of it anymore. “Why couldn’t you just tell me? I could’ve helped you. More than I did, I mean. Like this.” He gestured helplessly.
“Tell you what, though? That I thought the G—Malivian was dirty? I didn’t have anything to show for it. And let’s face it: you hated my guts since the first time we spoke and the… situation with Theeka wasn’t helping. You’d have laughed in my face at best, and accused me of mutiny at worst.”
He had a point. But now a new thought occurred to Nihlus and made his skin crawl. “Did she know?”
Nihlus exhaled with relief. “Yeah, that would’ve been some act.” He laughed again, remembering. “If only you knew how many times we argued over you. She insisted you weren’t the dim fuckwit I thought you were. Hey,” he lifted a hand in defense when Thadon gave him a warning glance. “You’ve done that yourself, remember? Everything played out according to your tidy little script. You motherless bastard.”
Thadon tucked his mandibles in and crossed his arms over his chest. “Not everything.”
“Right,” Nihlus said, connecting the remaining dots. “Saren stole your thunder, didn’t he? He came out of nowhere and just messed everything up for you.” He struggled to hold back the hysterical glee. “But why were you so bent against me going with him?”
“Because,” Thadon sighed, “you’re an asset. A valuable one. Malivian couldn’t tolerate a Spectre sniffing around any more than Wortag could. Together, they stood a good chance of getting rid of him quietly. And you’d have gone down with him.” He paused. “And all your men too.”
Ah. Theeka. Indeed, not everything had worked out for Thadon. “Did you tell her all this after we came back? Is that why she left?”
“It wasn’t the only reason. But yes.”
“Why tell her? I mean, you’re obviously an accomplished liar. You could’ve just… and why tell me?”
“Eh.” Thadon looked at his busy screens and pushed his envelope a bit more to the left, until it was neatly aligned with the edge of the desk. “I don’t like what I’ve done any more than you do. At first I wasn’t especially bothered. But after a few months of observing you… and of listening to Theeka’s incessant praises of you… I started feeling your resentment like a hand around my windpipe. I started to resent myself.” He fell silent for a moment, then laughed mirthlessly. “I was this close to telling you half a dozen times. But then you’d barge in, pissed-off and self-righteous, wearing that filthy hard-suit like a badge of honor and looking at me with murder in your eyes.”
That was a bit overboard, perhaps, but not untrue. Nihlus did enjoy harassing the paper-pushers in the HQ with his jungle manners, and never missed an opportunity to leave muddy footprints on their polished floors. And who knows what his face had looked like when he reported to Thadon, high on stims and simmering with testosterone, half his brain busy replaying his latest fantasy about tying Theeka to a tree and fucking her senseless, and the other directing a new one about smashing Thadon’s face into a bloody pulp before he could take half his monthly pay, once again, for some minor breach of protocol.
“Hardly a setting for civilized discourse,” Thadon concluded. “But I felt guilty anyway. You would’ve prospered under a different—a better commander. I wronged you. I wronged Theeka too, though in a different way. And I’ll pay for it, by losing you both. I’m telling you… in the hope you’ll learn something from it.”
Nihlus snorted. “Bullshit.”
Thadon’s browplates went up. “Excuse me?”
“You didn’t invite me here to enlighten me, but to gloat. After years of scheming in the background, you felt entitled to an audience at last. Someone to hear the epic tale of your heroic sacrifice and sympathize.” Nihlus looked around the lofty office, the couch and the armchairs and the antique drink cabinet. “My heart weeps for you, truly.”
Thadon became very still, obviously struggling to resist the taunt. Nihlus smiled at him patiently, while his mind wandered off. He didn’t know what time it was. If he left early enough, he could go back to Trodar and see if that cute guy, what was his name, still worked the third shift at the gates. Maybe Nihlus could get him to let him in and… and…
“I think we’re done here,” Thadon said after a long silence during which his mandibles must have cramped, the way he kept them pressed. “Thank you for coming, and for listening. I feared you’d be…”
“You’d have every right to be.”
“Oh, I’m pissed off alright. It just hasn’t… settled yet.”
Something like alarm glinted in Thadon’s eyes and Nihlus grinned with unhidden malice. There you go, fuckwit. A hand on your windpipe to dream about, free of charge. Compliments of your marionette extraordinaire, Nihlus Fucking Kryik.
“For what it’s worth, Nihlus,” Thadon said, getting up, “I always admired and respected you. I know you won’t believe it, but I think we could’ve been friends in some other life. I hate to lose you.”
Nihlus stood up too. He wanted to say something ugly on topic of being friends, but he found he didn’t have it in him. “I’m not a fan of being lost myself, to be honest.”
The reality of having nowhere to go pressed down on him with renewed vigor. Would it be below him to ask Thadon for some money? The man had declared, several times during the conversation, an interest in Nihlus’s welfare, and he certainly wouldn’t miss a couple hundred credits.
As if reading his mind, Thadon gave him an incomprehensible half-smile and said, “Don’t worry. You’ll be fine.” He then poked at his control panel and spoke to someone over the comm. “He’s ready. Come in.”
Nihlus heard the door open behind him and turned to see two expressionless MPs closing in on him.