CHAPTER 24 OF THINKER TRAITOR SOLDIER SPECTRE
Saren jumped when the doorbell rang. The setting sun painted the cockpit with dense, gold rays. Dust motes danced in them. Saren sniffed the warm, stuffy air. There was a floral scent in it. The glass-wiping fluid. Traces of wiping, likely no more than a molecule-thick, fogged the main control panel when viewed in this light, from this angle. He blinked his sticky eyes open and unglued his sweaty back from the pilot chair’s overly enthusiastic embrace with a groan. How long had he slept? The light had been a completely different color the last time he’d seen it.
The bell rang again. He stood up and stretched, then tapped the unlock command on the control panel. He knew who it was. The outer hatch opened, then closed; he couldn’t quite hear it from the bridge but he could feel it through the fuselage. The airlock cycle would take a few seconds. He straightened his shirt and took one last critical look around. The inner door opened when he was halfway up the stairs.
“Hello?” said a familiar voice.
Saren schooled his smiling face before emerging into the commons. Kryik was still inside the airlock, leaning on the doorway and looking around, wide-eyed.
“Come in,” Saren said with half a day’s silence rasp. He cleared his throat. A lump of nerves was coiling in his gut.
Kryik stared at him as if he had never seen him before. Probably caught off guard by Saren’s civilian persona as much as Saren was by his. He wore faded cargo pants, a tight, sleeveless shirt and a pair of worn boots. A soft leather jacket was folded over the large, but rather empty-looking army bag that hung from his left hand. The casual clothing enhanced his youthful features. Smooth skin and long neck and sparkling eyes. He looked no older than twenty.
After what seemed a long time to think about it, he pushed himself away from the doorway and carefully stepped inside the commons. The airlock eagerly closed behind him, giving him a start.
“It’s alright,” Saren said.
Kryik looked back at the door. “Yeah. Been in the jungle too long. Damnedest things make me jump.” He shook out his shoulders as if trying to relax, then faced Saren again and studied him. “So. How are you?”
Saren blinked, taken aback. He hadn’t had time to think about what he’d say. He had planned to think about it once he returned to the Virial, as he’d been too busy during his brief stay in Hierote. But circumstances had conspired against it. “I’m… fine,” he said. There was an awkward pause. “And you? Have all your injuries healed?”
“Injuries? Oh, right. Yeah, I’m good. There was nothing serious. Just sprains and bruises. Which I have you to thank for. Not the sprains and bruises,” he hurried to add, “but the ‘nothing serious’ part. I’m pretty sure I’d be dead right now if not for that bit of training with you before the Shithole. So uh… thanks.”
Saren nodded, trying to think of a way to reply in kind and give Kryik his thanks without getting too personal. After all, much of what Kryik had done to impress him had been his duty, despite the persistent sense that there had been more to it. Going beyond the call of duty, to ensure the success of the mission and preserve his life, was what Saren felt grateful for.
But his deliberations took too long.
“Did you uhm… send for me?” Kryik said, cringing. “You did, right? Please tell me you did. If this was some sick joke, I’ll strangle him, I swear to—”
“I did,” Saren said. Kryik seemed determined to make this as awkward as possible. And Saren didn’t know how to prevent him.
But Kryik closed his eyes and let out a sigh of relief that was surely exaggerated. “Thank the Spirits,” he said. “For a second there I thought… never mind.” He cleared his throat and gave Saren a stiff smile. “Thank you. It’s gonna sound weird but I uh… sort of expected it? Well, hoped for it. Ok, I wished for it.” He closed his eyes again and shook his head, muttering something like, shut up, Kryik. “But then I stopped when… you know. Days passed and not a word.”
“I was busy.”
He could have said more. He could have told Kryik that he had been buried so deep in administrative duties these few days that what little time he had for himself, he spent sleeping like a corpse. That he had only taken his armor off a few hours ago. Not to mention the extraordinary stress this entire mission had put him through, and the unexpected emotional turmoil he had suffered in its wake. Yet throughout it all, he never stopped thinking about Kryik, about his remarkable intuition, composure in combat, and last but not least, the strange and pleasant sense of kinship.
But he didn’t, and after a while, Kryik spoke to fill the silence. “Yeah. That must have been some mess to clean up.” In a gesture that had become familiar, he rubbed the back of his neck. “And I know I don’t have a claim on your time, so yeah. Forget I said that. Well, remember the thanks. I meant that. I just… It’s been a rough few days, is all.”
The tension radiating from him was affecting Saren too. He wanted to invite Kryik to sit and relax, but there was only one chair, behind the work-bench, and the couch facing the conferencing projector was much too low and soft for a professional conversation.
“What did the Major tell you?”
“Ugh. A bunch of stuff.” Kryik huffed and shook his head. “Some of it un-fucking-believable. Do you know—” he peered into Saren with a sudden and almost hostile intensity—”that he was using me? To get to the General? The ex-General, I mean. I bet the fucker bragged about it.”
Saren sighed. He had asked only because he wanted to know if the Major had given Kryik any clues on what to expect here, and now he regretted it. He didn’t want the conversation to stir anywhere near Baratus. He was far enough outside his comfort zone as it was.
“I know only as much as I could piece together on my own,” he said. “There was no bragging in my presence. In fact, the Major was remarkably reticent when it came to you and your mutual friend, Theeka. Both in person and in the official report. I let it slide. Otherwise there’d be a permanent stain on her record.”
“Her record,” Kryik echoed. “What about my record?”
“What about it?”
“Oh, come on. Don’t pretend you don’t know. Everyone got promoted or transferred or what have you, and I got kicked out. Relieved of duty until further notice. ‘I hate to lose you, Kryik, but it wasn’t my decision.’”
Despite obvious distress, Kryik managed a decent and quite comical impression of the Major.
Saren smirked. “Is that what he said?”
“Yes, sir. That’s what he said.” Kryik’s mandibles were drawn so tight Saren could hear them grind against his chin as he spoke. “And then a pair of MP dicks in hard-suits picked me up, tucked me in a sky-car, and drove me here, all with the emergency beacons. I think they’re still out there,” he pointed behind his back.
Saren had told the Major to bring Kryik to his ship, and the Major had followed the instructions to the letter. Literally. A parting gift for his favorite soldier. This at least answered the question of whether Kryik knew what to expect.
“So,” Kryik said when Saren didn’t comment. “Whose decision was it, then? Yours?”
Kryik recoiled as if slapped. “But—why? For once, I did everything by the fucking book. I was so hyped about working with you. I was totally up for dying for you. You must know that.”
Saren nodded, and took breath to interject, but that didn’t prevent Kryik from carrying on.
“I thought we had a thing, you know? What with the Hallori and the lessons and—and then I thought I hallucinated it ‘cos you were leaving without saying goodbye and that was like the worst thing but I guess it’s not. This is—”
And he did, for a moment, but then he opened his mouth to continue.
Saren held a hand up and raised his voice. “Kryik.”
He closed his mouth with a deliberate click. Silent taunts glinted in his eyes like hidden blades. If a random passer-by in the Wards looked at Saren that way he’d be liable to shoot them preemptively.
“I told the Major to relieve you of duty because you can’t take orders from the army while you’re under my command. It’s the only way to avoid complications with jurisdiction, apart from having you discharged.”
Kryik’s mouth opened and closed a few times while his free hand pointed hesitantly there and back again. “Under your command?”
“Yes.” Saren’s jaws ached with tension. This wasn’t the most promising beginning. “When I looked over your service record, I noticed that you filed multiple applications for the Spectre program, the latest dated two months ago. Assuming you’re still interested, I registered you as a candidate under my supervision. In hindsight—”
Kryik’s bag slipped from his fingers and hit the floor. It sounded heavier than it looked.
“—perhaps I should have—”
“Spectre training,” Kryik said. “With you?”
Saren closed his eyes and exhaled sharply through his nose. “Lesson number three, Kryik. I don’t like being interrupted.”
“Sorry, sir.” He shook his head as if he’d been punched. “Uh… was that a yes?”
Was it that difficult to imagine? Had he been so taciturn that none of his approval had come across? He needed to work on his execution. “Yes.”
“I can’t—I don’t—how did—” Kryik stopped the stammer by shutting his eyes for a few seconds and taking a deep breath. “Can you please explain this to me like I was a five-year-old?”
Saren searched his eyes for signs of mockery or mischief, but all he found was genuine bafflement. Yes, he should have definitely asked first.
“With experienced intelligence operatives or high-ranking military officers,” he started to explain, “candidacy takes the form of evaluation by a senior agent over a brief period comprising a few missions. Candidates of exceptional ability but with limited experience, such as you, are obliged to go through more extensive training. Several months at least.” He hesitated. “I was in training for nearly two years before appointment. But I was younger than you.”
Kryik’s mandibles hung loose. “But how will you—where do I—you realize I don’t have weapons or armor of my own? They took everything. I don’t even have an omni. This,” he kicked his bag, ”is all I have to show for after six years of service. And I’m broke. Gambling debts.” He let out a shaky laugh. “I better shut up before you change your mind.”
The only thing he could say to change Saren’s mind, now that everything had been set in motion, was no. It didn’t look like he would refuse, but none of his many words had been yes either. In theory, Saren had the authority to conscript him. But no one had ever been forced to serve in ST&R. And the thought of forcing Kryik to do anything after all the injustice he had suffered during his brief but turbulent career was offensive. If this failed, Saren would see him reinstated at a post of his choosing and label parts of his file as classified, to protect him against further discrimination. But it wasn’t going to come to that. Was it?
“You would stay with me.” He gestured at the Virial. “This is where I live. There’s room enough. Any equipment you need will be funded through the Spectre program. In fact, I’ve placed some orders already. And there’s a monthly stipend, of course. Roughly equivalent to space corps lieutenant. No one expects you to work for free.”
Kryik laughed. “You want me to move in with you.”
Sudden embarrassment drove heat up Saren’s neck. He hadn’t thought about it that way. “Other arrangements are possible. But that’s the most practical.” He shrugged. “Yes.”
No longer able to keep his emotions under control, Kryik grimaced and turned his back to Saren, draping a hand over his mouth.
Saren bit his mandible. What now? He waited—for a long time, it seemed—trying to put his heavy heartbeat out of his mind. “It was a mistake to spring this on you,” he said, finally losing his nerve. “If you need time to think about it—”
Without warning, Kryik spun on his toes, closed the distance between them, and clung to Saren, hitting him with enough momentum to set them both off balance. Saren groped for the bulkhead behind him. Kryik’s face, warm and wet, lodged itself in his collar.
Saren held on to the bulkhead like his life depended on it. Taut as a drawn bow, he felt ready to snap clean in half.
“I didn’t hallucinate it,” Kryik said with a broken voice.
But then he laughed. Surprising himself, Saren laughed too. The tension drained from him as if someone had opened a tap on his soul. By degrees, he relaxed into Kryik’s clumsy embrace and finally released the bulkhead so he could clap his sweaty shoulders.
“No,” he said. “You didn’t.”