The Boy

CHAPTER 6 OF THINKER TRAITOR SOLDIER SPECTRE

Saren wasn’t sure if he was pleased or annoyed with how the situation had developed. Perhaps a bit of both.

Baratus insisted on escorting him as far as the Trodar base, a small spaceport a hundred kilometers from Hierote proper. The sky-car ride took no more than half an hour even with the night traffic but sitting in silence the whole while with that boy, Kryik, staring at him in awe, was awkward. Baratus had reports to read and didn’t even attempt to provide conversation. That was fine. He hated small talk and he wouldn’t be comfortable speaking of private things in front of the boy. But if Baratus had nothing more to say to him, what was the purpose of his company?

Perhaps he too was irritated by the boy’s presence. An entire menagerie of stenches emanated from him. Sweat, smoke, dirt, oil, foliage, and more: alien scents native to Invictus he couldn’t even name. As Saren looked at him, wrinkling his nose in an exaggerated display of discomfort, the boy averted his eyes. Good.

His bravado had waned considerably since the debriefing. Once removed from the offending presence of his CO, he started to show signs of acute exhaustion. Saren wondered at the wisdom of taking him along. He was sure he’d wonder about it many times again. But Baratus had left him little choice. To insist on proceeding alone would have attracted too much attention. And the boy had made an impression.

Disregarding the smell, he was not entirely displeasing to behold. He was tall, athletic and agile; dark-skinned and green-eyed. His colors were faint, but not so far as to conceal an intricate variation of the Borena design with several unique improvisations. The artistry was very fine. Exquisite, even, and certainly atypical for the lower tiers. It gave his face an air of refinement that stood in sharp contrast with the soiled uniform and the brash behavior.

Their transport was already waiting in the spaceport. Baratus took them through a labyrinth of shortcuts between the buildings on foot, to minimize exposure, but they were still greeted at every other corner with tiresome saluting.

“How far is the crash site?” Saren asked while walking.

“About seven hundred klicks north-west, sir,” Kryik replied. “The ride will take two and a half hours.”

“How long till daylight?”

Kryik brought his omni up for a brief glance. “Sunrise is in seven hours, sir. But it will be ten before daylight in the jungle.”

Saren grunted. All things considered, it was strange that he had never been to the famous jungles of Invictus before. He didn’t know what to make of everyone’s ominous warnings. Either the locals made it their business to hype it up as a show of colonial pride, or this mission was about to get even uglier.

A warm, dry wind slashed over the runways. The sand in it looked like orange rain, dancing in the headlights of the transport. Kryik’s men were loading bags and equipment in it with a remarkable lack of enthusiasm. Their ponderous movements reminded Saren of just how tired he was himself. Despite his rigorous training regime and the state-of-the-art hydraulics in his suit, he was feeling the high gravity. The short walk had given him a workout.

Baratus leaned close and spoke to him in a low voice. “Would you like to—”

Saren just shook his head. He didn’t want the boy to notice he was out of breath.

“Alright.” Baratus cleared his throat. “Kryik?”

The boy snapped to attention. “Sir!”

“There’s no time for a formal briefing, but I take it you understand what you’re supposed to do?”

“Yes, sir. Escort the Spectre from the LZ to the crash site and afterwards provide ground support in the search for the Shi—the Blood Pack base and the retrieval of the krogan target, who is hopefully alive.”

Baratus shot a glance at Saren, who answered with a nod.

“For the duration of this mission, you and your men are to follow Saren’s orders directly—and without questioning. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’ll have to brief your men on the way. Make it clear who’s in charge. You’re to treat this as a recon mission and avoid engagement unless ordered otherwise. No heroics, and no bullshit.”

“Yes, sir. I heard you the first time, sir.”

Baratus snorted and shook his head, but he was smiling.

Saren wasn’t. He hated goodbyes.

“I hope to see you again, old friend.” Baratus put an arm on his shoulder and squeezed, but Saren could feel nothing through the armor.

“As do I.”


Saren jerked, grabbed his seat for support, looked about wildly. Where the hell—

Invictus. Transport. Flying to the jungle with the boy and his squad. He had changed sceneries far too many times in the past few days and it was starting to show.

The dream—it had been a nightmare. He couldn’t remember what about, but his pulse was racing, hard and loud in his ears. Had he shouted out?

All the soldiers were sleeping, as far as he could tell in his bewilderment, so no, he probably hadn’t. The boy was awake, though. And watching him with rapt attention. Had he been watching him in his sleep too?

“What are you looking at?” Saren said in a haggard voice.

The boy started to say something, but then hurriedly looked away. Saren let go of the seat and cleared his throat. He had no sense whatsoever of how long he’d slept. The transport had no viewports, and the lights were the same yellow they had been when they had started the journey. He glanced at his omni but the local time made no sense to him yet.

“What’s our ETA?”

“Half an hour, sir.”

He surveyed the faces of the sleeping soldiers. A unit of eight, including the boy. Most of them seemed to be older, and with the exception of the young man with violet markings of distant Rubori ancestry whose armor still looked relatively new, all appeared more battle-hardened than Kryik. Appearances could be deceiving, though. Saren took the opportunity to study the boy’s face while he was gazing down at his dirty boots. He could have been, what? Nineteen? Twenty?

Saren could always look it up in his service record. He had downloaded it to his omni already. But he was too sleepy to read. He had also downloaded the file with basic intel on Okeer, to give the boy an idea of what he had gotten his squad into. But for the moment, it was irrelevant. Saren had to assume Okeer was dead no matter how much he hoped, and feared, otherwise.

“Is this the only unit under your command?”

The boy looked up. “Yes, sir.”

“So someone else is securing the crash site?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Who?”

The boy brought his omni up. “Uh… Lieutenant Dinara Olore, sir.”

“Do you know her?”

“Yes, sir. Pretty well, in fact. In a professional way, of course.” A blush darkened his neck. “I’m not… we aren’t… we’re just friends.”

For a moment, Saren was speechless. And then they wonder why I work alone.

“Is she competent?”

“Yes, sir.”

They sat in silence for a while. The heady droning of the transport threatened to put him to sleep again, so he busied himself eating some energy bars. The vat-grown food disgusted him enough to kill his appetite if it could not sate it. He hadn’t had time to pack anything else.

He checked his pistols, checked the weather forecast, checked the small dent on his helmet, possibly created in the impact with his forehead back in space. At last there was nothing left to check and he tried to relax, studying his hands as they lay in his lap. Restlessness didn’t become him.

“Sir?” Kryik said as soon as he settled down.

“Yes.”

“I want to thank you for supporting me earlier. And for agreeing to take me on this mission.” He paused, perhaps expecting some reply. “It wasn’t at all how I imagined that debriefing would go.”

Saren’s silence seemed to unnerve him. He shifted in his seat, opening and closing his mandibles several times as if he couldn’t make up his mind whether to say more.

“I uh…” he cleared his throat. “Not sure if it’s my place to ask, sir, but uh… we were never properly introduced.”

“I know your name,” Saren said. “And you know mine.” Unless you’re retarded.

The boy smiled as if he’d heard Saren’s thoughts loud and clear. “Yes, sir. But just to make sure — you are Saren Arterius, right?”

“What of it?”

The awe was back in the boy’s eyes. “It’s an honor to be at your service, sir. That’s all.”

Saren grunted. He had heard similar declarations countless times before, but few had been sincere. Kryik seemed genuinely starstruck. It was embarrassing.

To avoid furthering the conversation, Saren turned up his omni and started flipping through the map of the region they were flying over. There seemed to be nothing there to engage his mind. For miles unending, it was all the same: water, mud, trees. The terrain was sloping down at a steady pace in the direction of their flight. They had already passed the Kirrenean Mountains—the long, nearly straight range that kept the dessert out of the jungle and the jungle out of the desert—and now they were well inside the drainage basin of the river Ibiss, where the Wisp had crashed.

A flash of light drew his attention. Kryik brought up his omni too, and a request for a shared channel started blinking in a corner of Saren’s interface. Their eyes met, and Saren decided to accept the offer before the boy had a chance to start talking again. After a second, he found his maps were being updated. Kryik sent him raw reconnaissance data: defensible areas, natural cover, wildlife activity, suspected and confirmed enemy positions, anomalies in seismic and sonic scans and a myriad of other points of interest. The crash site was labeled, as well as the settlement where Okeer had landed, with a pin at the precise spot where the gunship battle had taken place and its flight path extrapolated a klick downstream. Saren couldn’t remember when he’d last seen recon with this level of detail or quality.

“Too bad it’s for the wrong side of the river,” he said.

The boy flicked a mandible in a wry smile, catching the covert compliment.

Saren checked the time. Their ETA was ten minutes. The men were still sleeping. And then suddenly, they were not. Kryik sat straight up, reaching for his earpiece, and the soldiers all snapped awake at once in reaction to something Saren wasn’t privy to. They started checking their straps, weapons and helmets.

“Jammed?” Kryik was saying. “How’s that possible? Give me the ground team. Dinara? Dinara, I can barely hear you!”

“What’s going on?” Saren said, putting on his helm. “Patch me in, damn you!”

“We’re going in hot,” Kryik said, and then there was a cacophony of sounds in Saren’s earpiece. Mostly white noise with flicks and clicks of the jammer, but there was also a woman’s voice coming through in discrete packages.

“Ship… power… locked out… watch for… shit!”

Another voice, presumably that of their pilot, joined in to say, “Sarge! The nav is fucked!”

“Switch to visual and land us immediately,” Kryik said.

“We’re halfway across the river. Do I turn back or…?”

“No. Go for the far side. But—”

“Shit! Incoming!”

A sudden change of direction yanked Saren off his chair. The straps tightened around his chest and waist with enough force to wind him, and then another change of direction slammed him back into the hard seat. He barely had time to register the sharp pain climbing up his spine when a detonation sent the shuttle reeling. Muffled yelling reached him through his closed helmet. It was close, but they weren’t hit. Lights went off and a few seconds of total deafness and disorientation followed before the starboard thrusters kicked in with another violent jolt. A shower of sparks sprouted from a blown service panel. For a moment Saren was weightless and inertia wrenched at his guts. The shuttle hit the treetops then, bouncing and shaking as if it was going to fall apart any moment. Deceleration piled him on top of the man sitting next to him. Wild rustling, scratching and snapping enveloped them from all sides like they were falling into an overgrown well. And then suddenly all sounds stopped. Saren braced for impact, but the touchdown was fairly gentle, considering.

Nothing happened for a few seconds as everyone struggled to get their bearings in complete darkness. Saren tried to switch to night vision, but his visor wasn’t responding. He lifted it up and smelled burnt polymer and torn foliage.

“Duon!” the boy said through the intercom. “Report!”

“We’re… Sarge! …weren’t hit! Primary… undamaged. But… where we are, and… ground.”

“Ah, shit. Looks… jammed too. Casualties?”

The last word did not come over the intercom. Kryik had raised his visor, and the others were presumably doing the same.

“I think I dislocated a shoulder,” said a female voice.

“Anyone else? No? Good.”

“My visor isn’t working,” said a different female voice.

“Mine neither,” the boy said. An orange light flickered for a moment from the direction where the boy sat, then went out. “Nor my omni.”

Saren checked his own omni then, as did everyone else.

“Whatever jammed our nav is messing with the suits too,” said someone third.

 “Farril, go see if Duon needs help. And tell him to get the emergency lights on.”

“Yes, sir.”

It sounded like Kryik and his men were unbuckling and getting up. Saren did so too. A bolt of pain shot up from his lower back but his grunt was lost among many just like it. He took a poorly thought-out step forward and collided with someone.

“Pardon me, sir,” the boy said. “I’m going to open the hatch and take a look outside. If you could just—”

Saren felt a pair of hands on his shoulders, trying to steer him clockwise. He stood his ground and spoke in a low voice. “What the hell just happened, Kryik?”

“I don’t know, sir. Looks like we were targeted by a missile, but the nearest AA gun managed to blow it up in the nick of time.”

“The Blood Pack?”

“That’d be a first. The day they start taking down planes, it’s open war. But who the fuck knows? They’re a bunch of crazy bastards. Uh. Pardon my language, sir. But I’ve also never heard of them disrupting equipment or jamming comms, at least not successfully. Tech isn’t their strongest suit.”

There was only one explanation. It had to be the Wisp, somehow. Okeer was certainly both crazy and skilled enough to set her up for something like this. It wasn’t a thing to expect from a supposedly crashed ship, though.

The hands on his shoulders tried to exert force on him again. “Sir?”

“Carry on,” he muttered and moved aside to let the boy through.

At least one more person moved past him and joined Kryik at the hatch. Rattling and clanking of manual override ensued, followed by a loud bang and cursing. But then the hatch hissed open and Saren could finally see something: a square patch of slightly lighter darkness to his left. A wave of damp, chilly air reeking of water and rotting plants broke in and Saren wrinkled his nose. He hated swamps.

“Got them lights, Sarge,” the pilot yelled from the cockpit. Strips of uniform red glow came to life on the floor and the walls, revealing a crowd of bulky, armored figures packed too closely in the cramped space.

“Awesome. Prepare to move out.”

For a moment, only the heads moved, looking around, and then everyone seemed to stir at once. But the boy had already gone out. Saren followed.

He looked skyward out of habit, only to remember just how long it had taken the shuttle to breach the canopy above them. A handful of objects in the immediate vicinity of the hatch were discernible by the ghastly outlines from the emergency lights: a low-hanging, twisted branch, the stem and several large leaves of some tall herb leaning over the hatch at an odd angle, and the restless shapes of two turians scanning the darkness around with the sights of their assault rifles. He lowered himself onto the ground.

“Watch your step, sir—” the boy said, and Saren was just about to bark something about being perfectly able to take care of himself when his left foot sank ankle-deep into mud, making him stumble forward. A strong hand caught him by the arm and prevented the fall. “The ground isn’t solid.”

“I can’t see,” Saren growled.

“Neither can we, sir. It takes a few minutes to adjust.”

“I know that!” He brushed off the helping hand. “Don’t you have flashlights?”

“Yes, sir. But we should avoid using them if we can.”

That actually made sense. Someone had shot at them, after all.

But then Kryik added, “Because of the critters.”

“Critters,” Saren enunciated, unsure if the boy had been serious.

“It’s no joke, sir,” said a new voice, coming from the direction of the hatch. Its owner carried two large bundles, one in each hand, but somehow managed to avoid stepping into the mud patch where Saren had got stuck, and landed both quietly and gracefully.

Saren realized he could see now. Mostly just the solid forms of the shuttle and the tree-trunks, and the diffuse mass of foliage that swayed in the barely perceptible wind, but that was more than before.

“There’s a species of bat in this region with wing-span of almost a meter,” the new man was saying. He put the bags on the ground and seemed to face Saren. “It’s stupid and harmless but it can knock out a grown man if it hits the headlight at full speed. And there are several kinds of disease-carrying mosquitoes in the swamp. Tree-bark slugs and mud-leeches are attracted to light too. The slugs are just an annoyance, but the leeches are sensitive to heat, and can crawl up the suit and get inside without you noticing.”

Saren started to seal his helmet half-way through the lecture, but the inactive visor would only cripple his vision even further. He could already hear mosquitoes buzzing around his face and leeches creeping up his legs from the mud.

“No need to worry about catching anything, though, if you got inoculated,” the man added as if he could sense Saren’s sudden discomfort. “You did get inoculated, right?”

“No need. I get Mulitvax twice a year.”

“Multi is ineffective against two dozen Invictus diseases, and as many imported ones that developed local adaptations. I’m surprised they didn’t stick you as soon as you landed.”

Saren reached for his omni to verify but remembered halfway through the motion that his omni was dead. Could it be that the medical department of the ST&R was unaware of this? Surely he wasn’t the first Spectre to ever set foot on Invictus.

The boy groaned. “Damn. I thought the General took care of that. Didn’t occur to me to ask. I’m really sorry, sir.”

“It’s no big deal, Sarge,” said the new man. “I can fix him up right away. An hour here or there won’t make a big difference.”

“Fix me up,” Saren echoed, weaving a warning into his undertones. He didn’t appreciate being talked about like he wasn’t present.

“Yes, sir,” the man said. “With a vaccine. I have a dozen spare shots.” He got down on one knee and started feeling one of the bundles he’d dropped, and then abruptly stood up again. “Pardon my manners, sir. My name is Pan Igravani. I’m the squad medic.”

Saren grunted an acknowledgment. In the meantime, another man jumped out of the shuttle, followed by a heavy bag that someone threw out behind him. He caught it and lowered it down, and then there was another. The boy was giving the two point men some instructions, but Saren couldn’t hear what.

“This vaccine,” he said at last, “does it affect combat readiness?”

“It’s not unheard of, sir, but the effects are mostly mild. You might get a headache or suffer a low fever. Nothing serious, though. Certainly nothing compared to the afflictions you’d risk without it. Some of which are deadly.”

Saren vacillated. “Does it affect biotics?”

Even after all the years in service, with all the confidence he’d accumulated and his inherent disinterest in the opinions of others, it was still hard to broach the topic when talking with the uninitiated.

“Uh… No idea, sir.”

Saren didn’t need to see the man’s face to know the expression on it. Alarm, anxiety, apprehension—those were the stock responses. Sometimes flavored with disdain, sometimes with distrust. For the most progressive culture in the Galaxy, turians were remarkably slow to get over the stigma of biotics. In part because the Cabals preferred it so, but Saren abhorred this policy. To tolerate prejudice was bad enough; to spread and support it was outright disgusting. But the damage had been done long before his day, and he was likely the last person in existence to try correcting it.

The boy, on the other hand, gasped with unguarded surprise. “You’re a biotic?” Apparently, he’d managed to get himself back within earshot just in time to witness the exchange. “That’s fucking awesome!”

Saren bit back a cutting remark. The sincerity in the boy’s voice was disarming.

“Uh… pardon my language, sir. I’ve never met a turian biotic before, much less worked alongside one.” He coughed, or laughed. Saren couldn’t tell in the dark. But he sounded genuinely excited. “Looking forward to seeing you in action. But please take the shot. I’m sure people who make them know what they’re doing.”

“You’d be surprised.” He almost went on to educate the boy on the harsh reality of what sort of people ran the dextro pharmaceutical companies, but something was buzzing inside his helmet. He took it off and waved his hand in the air. Damn this place! “Alright.”

The medic crouched again and rummaged through his bag. How the hell could he see anything? By now Saren could see the men and the growing pile of equipment on the ground, silhouetted against a faint hint of diffuse light from up ahead. The river? With starlight above the water?

“Here we go, sir,” the medic said.

He stepped forward and felt Saren’s neck with gloved hands. Saren clenched his mandibles and held his breath. Damn Baratus for failing to think of this back in the city! His heart was beating way too fast, and then it nearly stopped when the inquisitive, intrusive fingers brushed the amplifiers behind his jaw. But they went on with their examination without a comment, and then stopped about halfway down to the collar. There was a soft hiss from the subdermal injector, and a brief sense of unnatural warmth on his skin, and then it was over.

“Let me know if you experience anything… out of the ordinary, sir.”

Saren muttered an affirmative and replaced his helmet. It looked like the last of the men had evacuated the shuttle. They were strapping on their backpacks and communicating in quick, hushed bursts he couldn’t catch. The medic stepped away and leaned over the only person who was sitting down, presumably the female with the dislocated arm. Only one bag remained on the ground. Saren suppressed an annoyed sigh and picked it up. He hated teamwork.

“Sir?” said the boy, who was somehow right next to him again. “The river is that way,” he pointed ahead, “and the crash site is that way.” He pointed behind the shuttle.

“What makes you think so?”

“The lights, sir. This way. See?”

Saren followed the boy a few steps away from the shuttle, trying to copy his every move, since he could still make out nothing on the ground. Looking up, he saw that the trees and the shuttle were silhouetted in the direction of the boy’s outstretched hand by an indistinct orange glow.

It was possible. It fit with the map locations he’d memorized. And it didn’t look like they had much of a choice anyway. Staying put until first light was out of the question: it was still hours away, and they were sitting targets here.

“That’s where we go, then,” he said.

“Sir, we have to assume the site’s been compromised. I need to know what kind of training you have.”

“Advanced Combat, Advanced Tactical, Basic Space, but all that was years ago,” Saren said simply. No point in beating around the bush. He was no soldier, not anymore. “Spectre training, obviously.”

“Obviously.” The boy seemed to deliberate. “We’ll treat you as a non-combatant for now. That ok?”

Saren snorted. “Of course not. But there’s no time to argue, so I’ll let it slide.”

“Glad to hear it, sir, because it’d be a pain to try and adapt to a new rotation in these conditions. Uh… You ok with taking my orders during combat?”

The little bastard was on his own turf now and suddenly he was cocksure again. Saren could hear it in his voice. It was supposed to be unnerving, but he was amused. “Of course not,” he repeated. “But I’ll let that slide as well, for now.”

He could swear he heard the boy smiling.

“What of the shuttle, sir?”

“What of it?”

“We may not be able to find this place again unless we leave its locator beacon on, which might invite unwanted attention. And even if we find the place, the shuttle may not be here anymore. Lighter craft’s been known to sink in the swamps and disappear without a trace.”

“Charming.”

The boy laughed. “Yes, sir. That’s Invictus for you.”

“Do you propose to split your unit?”

“You mean, leave a team behind to guard the shuttle?”

Saren shrugged. He didn’t care. In his experience, it would all go to hell sooner or later regardless.

“I’d rather not, sir. We don’t know what’s out there.” Saren could see him gesturing in the direction of the crash site with his chin. “But it’s up to you. I just wanted to make sure you understand the situation.”

“Very well. Seal the shuttle and leave it.”

At that, a groan of sudden pain and a heavy curse, muffled by a closed helmet, reached them.

“I guess Theeka’s shoulder’s been fixed,” the boy muttered.

“Good. Time to move out. We’ve lingered here for too long already.”


In truth, it hadn’t been more than ten minutes since their haphazard landing. Kryik and his men were efficient. From the way they moved through near-perfect darkness one would never guess they weren’t using night vision. Only Saren was unsure of his footing.

After the talking had ceased, he became keenly aware of a myriad of alien sounds coming from all directions. Animal cries, some distant, some alarmingly close, occasionally rose above the background of the strangely melodious buzzing of the insects mixed with rhythmic night-bird calls on tireless repeat. His augmented hearing picked up the scurrying, scratching and milling of a thousand tiny creatures in a twenty-meter radius around their path. The unseen branches and shrubbery teemed with life. He fancied shifty glowing eyes staring at them through the foliage, and thought he was starting to see things until one of them suddenly flew into his face, struck him square in the nose and buzzed off. Insects.

The air was very still and moist and stunk of wet, dead things. Saren was out of breath and perspired profusely. The backpack he carried for the injured female on top of his bag must have weighed at least thirty kilos, and his back still hurt from his own mishaps during the landing. It was a hard, long trudge, even though the boy had claimed they were only about a klick from the crash site.

By degrees, however, the lights ahead started providing a semblance of illumination. Saren saw that two men were walking point and one of them was occasionally clearing the path for the rest of the squad using some sort of machete. Another two men followed, scanning their sectors with weapons at the ready, and then went the boy and himself.

They halted and crouched behind trees in pairs without any perceptible communication.

“It’s too quiet,” the boy said. “I don’t like it.”

“You suspect an ambush?”

“Perhaps.” He turned to face Saren. “I’m worried about your armor, sir. It’s, um… very nice, but it identifies you as a valuable target.”

Saren glanced down. His outfit did indeed stand out. “It has a passive cloaking function,” he muttered. “Normally its colors adapt to match the surroundings.”

“Ohhh. The chameleon finish,” the boy said dreamily. “I’ve read about it on the extranet but I didn’t know there were working prototypes outside the Alliance labs.” He absently touched Saren’s left arm. “It’s amazing.”

Saren brushed his hand away. “Nothing that can be disabled this easily qualifies as amazing.”

“Sorry, sir.”

“Shut up. Let me think.”

“Yes, sir.”

Saren looked around. The ground was covered with a network of saplings, moss and roots, but it was wet. Everything was wet here. He tried to scoop up some wet dirt and smear it over his chest.

“Good idea, sir.” The boy felt around a bit, then pushed his right hand through a soft spot and brought back a fistful of clingy, reeking mud. He then applied it to Saren’s back and shoulders, while Saren worked on his front and legs. “There. Now you look and smell almost as bad as one of us.”

“Shut up and move out.”

“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.” He signaled the order. To Saren he added, “You’re with me.”

The unit started to move forward in an overwatch pattern, two by two. Saren readied his pistol and copied the boy’s movements as close as he could. Muscle memory kicked in, from all the drills in basic training. Even as tired and weighed down as he was, he could still execute the tactic effectively, if not as smoothly as Kryik’s men.

Kryik moved with speed and ease, even though his backpack was twice the size of what Saren carried. But there was more to it than brute strength. There was an elegance in his motion, a predatory grace suggesting training beyond mere field experience. Once again, Saren wondered how old “the boy” really was.

When they reached the point from which the thorium flares that gave off the light could be clearly seen, Kryik gave a signal and half his men — a team of four — disappeared between the trees off to the right, presumably to flank the potential hostiles. The rest of them crept closer on all fours.

It was the crash site, alright. The Wisp had cleared and scorched a circle about thirty meters in diameter, but it could hardly be called a crater, and the wreckage appeared to be in far better shape than Saren would have expected. The flares kept the center of the clearing well lit, but outside of their effective range, they were more trouble than help, leaving white blanks and trails in their unshielded, darkness-adapted eyes. There were no bodies around the ship, and as far as Saren could tell, were no signs of combat either.

Kryik lifted his arm to signal for movement again, then froze in mid-motion when a creepy, yet strangely familiar bird call rolled over to their ears.

“Thank the Spirits,” Kryik said and rolled over on his back, visibly deflating. The other men with them suddenly relaxed too.

“What was that?”

“The hoobekay call, sir.”

“Right.” The hoobekay, a majestic bird of prey endemic to Palaven and the emblem of the Hierarchy, sang a mating song that no known sapient species other than turians could mimic. That too was taught in basic training, but Saren had forgotten it completely. It meant, friendlies.

Kryik cleared his throat, took a deep breath, and let out a reply-call, spicing it up with a rich selection of low order harmonics. It was quite the performance. Kryik was out to make an impression, and he was doing a decent job—if one disregarded the fact that a fine singing voice counted for exactly nothing in his line of work.

In Saren’s, however, there was a use for every conceivable talent.


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