They Wouldn’t Dare

CHAPTER 11 OF THINKER TRAITOR SOLDIER SPECTRE

And so began another tedious march through the jungle. They were making decent progress and at first, it felt good to be on the move. It meant getting closer to Okeer and to the end of this mission. A dubious and difficult mission from the beginning, but Saren’s eagerness to be done with it and gone from Invictus was rapidly evolving into a need.

As they left the river further and further behind, the marshlands gave way to firmer, intermittently rocky ground. There was much less secondary growth and no need for cutting to clear a path. But the heat was getting worse by the minute. Saren was sweating in sheets. He considered sealing his suit times and times again, but everyone else was walking with open helmets so he had to endure it too.

Theeka walked point, giving Lantar, who went close behind, various scouting tips. Twice they crossed game trails, and she named some of the creatures who had made them, and the predators that might stalk them. By description, one was a giant slug who killed by spraying its prey with paralyzing venom, then enveloped and consumed it over the course of weeks by slow osmosis of dissolved tissue directly through the skin. The fragile, silvery cobwebs hanging from the lowest branches of the ganuts were the dried slime left after its passage. Saren was briefly fascinated. He thought he could hear the creature slithering up a tree where they found fresh tracks and even turned up his audio implants above the safety recommendation in hope of catching sight of it. But after the conversation with Kryik, he had ordered strict radio-silence, which included his own extrantet link, so he couldn’t look it up and find out more.

Kryik and he went next, and the medic had the rear. The other fire team moved on a parallel course, somewhat ahead and to their left, mostly invisible to the unaided eye. Trekking through the jungle was likely the activity that comprised most of this unit’s normal duties. They moved through it with the confidence of seasoned hunters making rounds of their territory, even though Kryik had told him they had never been on this side of the Ibiss. The respite had put them in high spirits and there was a lot of intercom chatter.

Saren wasn’t paying attention. He was almost out of water and every now and then, suffered shivers from an incongruous chill, as if running a low fever. It would be trivial to check but he didn’t want to be seen doing it. Worse than that, however, was the mounting exhaustion. Nothing to wonder about after sleeping an hour a day on average since Sur’Kesh. The high gravity wasn’t helping. His legs were heavy and clumsy and his joints lacked their usual spring. He kept stumbling on roots like a drunkard.

“Spit it up, Sarge,” the medic said after an especially bad instance. “What did you put in the Spectre’s water bottle?”

“Oh, nothing,” Kryik drawled. “Just a few drops of rynkol.” He turned to Saren and winked. “Mixed with water in good proportion it’s almost tasteless, but still packs a hell of a punch.”

“Listen to Sarge, sir,” said Mirene. “He knows his stuff when it comes to rynkol.”

Everyone laughed for some reason.

“It’s rude to make private jokes,” said another man’s voice, and Saren was reasonably sure it was the tech, Duon. “You should tell the whole story.”

“No she shouldn’t,” Kryik hurried to say. “Mirene, don’t—”

“Oh, but I must! Lantar hasn’t heard it either. Have you, knucklehead?”

“Nope.”

Another man, whose voice Saren couldn’t place, laughed. “It’s hardly educational.”

“It’s totally educational. So we were on patrol in the south, just under the Kirreneans—”

“Mirene,” Kryik warned. “Don’t make me order you to shut up.”

“Oh, come on, Nihlus,” Theeka said. “It’s not that bad.”

Kryik cleared his throat.

“Sir,” she added and chuckled. “It’s not that bad, sir. Sorry, sir.”

Saren glanced at Kryik, who turned his face away. It was an unmistakable reference to the way Kryik addressed him. But perhaps Kryik’s embarrassment came not so much from making fun of his formality as from Theeka’s familiarity. Saren wondered if they slept together and if the IIC had regulations regarding it.

“It’s bad. But fine.” Kryik sighed. “Go ahead… make me look even more stupid.”

Theeka, and a few others, made annoyed noises. Mirene just laughed. “It was Sarge’s second or third patrol with us and he was still showing off.”

Kryik snorted.

“We found a small lair of mercs. They were holed up in this… bunker thing. One can find them scattered throughout the jungle. Outposts securing supply lines for timber and water, built by the First Wave, abandoned and never reclaimed. Half of them are animal dens nowadays, and the other half, merc hideouts. Anyway, they knew we were sneaking around, and we knew they were pretty much untouchable in there. So Sarge here had the brilliant idea to uh—” she laughed—“talk them into letting us in.”

“It was a good plan,” Kryik muttered.

“It was jackshit insane,” said yet another male voice. Vezeer? Saren wasn’t sure.

“But it almost worked, didn’t it?”

“What was the plan” Saren said.

For a few seconds the silence on the intercom was pristine. He hadn’t said a word since they’d moved out.

Mirene cleared her throat. “Well, sir, we waited till it was dark. You’ve seen how dark it gets at night under the trees. Sarge made Duon program his omni to create a fake krogan thermal signature. Then we ran around, yelling and firing our weapons while Sarge pretended to best us all in melee.”

“He had me model a big-ass holo hammer,” Duon said and laughed. “And went around swinging it like some old warlord from the Rebellions.”

“We all sealed suits and cloaked one by one,” Mirene continued. “It was supposed to look like he’d killed us. And then he just… went there and knocked on their barricade.”

“He had me program a voice-altering filter for his omni too,” Duon said. “One that’d make him sound like a krogan, har-har.”

His imitation of a krogan laugh wasn’t half bad even without any filters.

“I still have that,” Kryik said. He typed something into his omni, and a second later a gruff krogan voice boomed in Saren’s earpiece. “Come out, you pyjacks. They’re dead, ha-ha!”

Everyone laughed, and even Saren couldn’t stop his mandibles from twitching. “Did they?”

“Eventually,” Mirene said. “They asked him who he was and where he came from and the bullshit he spun was glorious. I swear, no one in their right mind could think of such nonsense, and make it sound plausible.”

“They were marinated,” Kryik protested. “They slurred and belched and laughed like idiots. No one is that stupid.”

You’d be surprised, Saren thought. Distracted, he stumbled again, but the others were too occupied to notice.

“It turned out that they’d been sitting on a shipment of rynkol for days with nothing to do but sample the goods,” Mirene went on. “They were waiting for a contact, some slimy batarian who we’d found dead and half-eaten earlier. That’s how we got a wind of them to begin with. Anyway, after a few minutes of this hilarious conversation, they had the genius idea to shine a light on him and see who they were making fiends with. Sarge spun some more bullshit, about how it would mess with his night vision or something. I don’t know if that made them suspicious or if it’s a usual thing in krogan social interactions, but they handed him a bottle through the window and insisted he drinks with them while they work on removing the barricade. And smart as Sarge is on any other day, he couldn’t figure out how to trick them on that one and just did as they asked!”

Scattered laughter bubbled over the intercom.

“I didn’t know it was rynkol,” Kryik said, gesturing defensively. “I can handle normal booze as well as the next guy.”

“Don’t sell yourself short, Sarge,” said one of the men. There was more laughter. Saren glanced at Kryik again, but Kryik just shook his head.

“Anyway,” Mirene said, “he took it like a champ.”

“I only had one gulp,” Kryik said. “Having no gag reflex certainly helped.” He winked at Saren again, but only after several laughs, snorts and exclamations of disbelief followed over the intercom did Saren understand the joke. If it was a joke.

“Interesting,” he muttered.

The intercom grew very quiet and Kryik turned deathly serious at the snap of the fingers. For a moment Saren thought that there was an enemy contact or some other alarm, but the unit kept moving.

And then he realized that what he’d actually said was disgusting.

Nothing could’ve been further from his sentiment. He didn’t care one bit about the sexual applications of such a… talent, although these young people, unsurprisingly, cared for nothing but. But there were several ways to use it in his line of work, the most obvious being to hide things inside one’s own body without the need for surgery. That had been on his mind when he made the comment.

He had no intention of apologizing or explaining himself, but slipping was unlike him. His head was muddled. If was the fever. From a heat stroke? Hardly. There was no headache. A reaction to the vaccine?

“Well,” Mirene said after a long spell of awkward silence. “Like I said, the mercs eventually did get out of the bunker. There were two krogan and three vorcha in there. They were so drunk they couldn’t shoot shit. We made short work of them.” She laughed. “Too bad Sarge passed out and didn’t see any of it. But we had some more quality entertainment stripping him naked and drenching him with water the next morning.”

No one laughed this time.

“That’s it,” she concluded.

“So uh… what was I supposed to learn from this, exactly?” Lantar asked after a while.

“To keep your mouth shut,” Theeka said.

Kryik didn’t say anything. Nor did anyone else for a long time. Saren couldn’t quite see the reasons for being so morose. Despite the unflattering lead-up, the story painted Kryik in a positive light. The risk-to-reward value of his unorthodox plan was debatable, but he and his men had worked out the details of it meticulously and the execution obviously resulted in success. It was rather a story to be proud of.

But even if Saren cared for Kryik’s hurt feelings, telling him all that would take so many words. Just thinking about it made him want to lie down on the ground and never move again. His vision darkened. Fluorescent worms writhed in front of his eyes and he froze, grabbing the first thing in range for balance. It happened to be Kryik’s arm.

“What?” Kryik snapped. But when Saren could not respond immediately and the grip grew urgent, he spoke in a gentler tone. “Sir?”

The world came back in all its splendor of insect noises and countless shades of green as suddenly as it had receded. It had only lasted a second.

“Nothing,” Saren muttered. He let go and they moved on.

After a few steps, Kryik handed him a fresh water bottle.

“No rynkol in there, I presume?”

Kryik stopped short and bulged his eyes at him. “I’d never do that. Please tell me you didn’t take that crap seriously?”

“It was a joke, Kryik.” Served him right to even try. To demonstrate good will, he took the bottle and drank from it.

“Oh.” Kryik cleared his throat. “Sorry, sir.”

Saren kept drinking until there was no more. It was unbelievably refreshing, yet far from enough. Kryik watched him.

“Spent your own?”

“Way back.”

Kryik glanced at his omni, then spoke over the intercom. “Let’s take a break.”

“Thank Spirits,” Mirene muttered.

“Thank Sarge,” Kryik corrected her.

A choir of voices replied at the same time. “Thank you, Sarge!”

It was a good call. The Claw was another five or so klicks away, according to Saren’s visual estimate from Lomera. They might find nothing there. Or walk into a trap. Better be rested and alert.

They dropped their bags and sat on the grass in a small clearing around the gigantic stump of an ancient ganut, two meters tall and twice as wide. Saren leaned back with a long sigh. Judging from the groans, the others were no less exhausted. Kryik was the only one still standing, feeling for something in his backpack. He pulled out another bottle of water and offered it.

“I have a few more,” he replied to the unspoken question.

Saren took it with a grateful nod. Which reminded him. He gestured at Kryik to approach and rummaged through his own bag. It was full of fruit. Not what he’d had in mind, but since they were there, he quickly munched one berry. And another. The grenades were almost the same size and shape.

Kryik had taken a step forward, but now he just stood there. Still offended by Saren’s remark, no doubt. For all his yes-sir, no-sir nonsense, he was broadcasting an air of defiance so palpable Saren could feel it poking at his composure like a rude finger. No wonder he hadn’t gotten along with any of his COs if this was how he presented whenever he was told something he didn’t like.

“Come,” Saren said.

Kryik made a face but lowered himself on one knee.

“Take these.”

“Uh… got plenty of my own, sir.”

“You carry cluster grenades?”

“What?”

“These are biotic.”

The fretful expression on Kryik’s face was at once swept away by unadulterated, childlike awe. “Oh,” he uttered, then dropped the strap of his backpack and put up his hands.

Saren placed the two grenades carefully in his palms. “Suitable for triggering runaway dark energy reactions.”

Kryik blinked at him, mandibles hanging.

“Biotic explosions,” Saren explained. “They might come in handy when we engage the enemy. I imbued these myself. They should be quite potent. Throw them into non-transient—lasting—biotic fields for a large-scale effect.”

“Oh, man.” Kryik was staring at the grenades in his hands as if they were already primed.

“You’ll know one when you see one.”

“And if I don’t?”

Saren shrugged. “On their own they’re like normal frag-grenades. Waste of my energy, but that’s a renewable resource.” Though right now that felt manifestly false. “Don’t overthink it.”

“Yes, sir.”

With practiced efficiency, Kryik re-slotted a pair of his own grenades from the left to the right side of his belt, put Saren’s in the vacant spots and tested if they were secure. Before Saren could finish muttering that’s all, Kryik had already rolled over next to him, with his back nested against the stump and eyes firmly shut. He was asleep within seconds.

Leaning his head back, Saren closed his eyes too. The strange pattern of canopy disengagement left white imprints on the back of his eyelids. But soon it turned into scorched earth and lava bubbled from the black cracks. The planet was doomed, he knew, because he had seeded a biotic singularity in its core and the inevitable release of dark energy could not be contained. By some horrible miscalculation (the mass increase wasn’t supposed to be steep enough to require relativistic corrections) he was stranded on the surface. The air was turning to fire, on his face, in his lungs. Glancing down, he witnessed his left hand feeding the red flames. His flesh was vaporized and only charred bones remained.


He jolted. Strange faces loomed above him and he tried to back away but he was cornered. His left hand—still there, thank the Spirits, still whole—flared up for a reflexive biotic slash even as he remembered his whereabouts. One face belonged to Pan, the medic, and the other was Kryik’s. They scrambled away at the first sight of blue sparks, but Saren held back in time.

“Don’t sneak up on me like that,” he snarled, pushing himself up. “Bad idea even on a good day.”

“Yes, sir,” Kryik said, a little breathless. “Sorry, sir. We were trying to raise you, but you wouldn’t wake up.”

Saren huffed, finding his balance. His breath felt hot in his head and his hand burned. Was it for real, or was it the dream, lingering behind? He looked around. Theeka was sitting on the ground, chewing a dry ration and observing the scene indifferently. There was no trace of Lantar.

“Sir,” the medic said, “you don’t look well. If you—”

“I’m fine,” he lied.

The medic cocked his head sideways. “No, sir. At the very least, you’re dehydrated, and that can be a lot more serious than it sounds in this weather.” As he spoke, a wild shiver broke through Saren’s body, as if invited. “And it looks like you have a bit of a fever too. Remove your helmet, please?”

Saren glared at him, hating his authority, but he didn’t have the energy to argue. He took off the damn helmet. Only when the breeze touched his skin did he realize just how soaked with sweat it was.

Meanwhile, Kryik had been standing by with an annoyingly concerned face, shifting his weight from one foot to another and waiting to be noticed.

“What is it?” Saren said.

“Not sure, sir. Got a bad feeling. I sent scouts out, just in case. But we should get ready either way.”

The medic was in his face. With massive reluctance, Saren turned away and let him feel the spot where he’d administered the vaccine last night. He flinched at the contact. It hurt.

“There’s a reaction,” the medic said. “Any nausea? Dizziness? Disorientation?”

“Some,” Saren admitted. He side-stepped out of the medic’s reach, feeling the painful spot himself. “What makes you think there’s trouble ahead?” he asked Kryik.

“The silence.” Kryik indicated the jungle with his chin. “Usually means something’s up.”

“Or that someone’s strung out on stims,” Theeka pointed out with a full mouth. When Kryik gave her the evil eye, she laughed, spraying crumbs.

“What are you doing?” Saren asked the medic, who was pointing his omni at him and frowning.

“Your armor is blocking my scanner, sir.”

“Working as intended.”

The medic lowered his hand and looked at Kryik with all the frustration he didn’t dare convey directly. Kryik in turn looked at Saren with a silent plea.

Grumbling, Saren called up his vitals on his own omni. Rather than any illness he could readily remember, the way he felt reminded him of states of serious blood loss or biotic debt. Even reciting the numbers—everything other than his body temperature was within acceptable limits—was too much of an effort. Instead he just stretched his arm out so the medic could see the report for himself.

Kryik drew closer and craned his neck over the medic’s shoulder for a peek. Saren was about to bark at them to keep their damn distance when his earpiece rang and everyone jumped.

“Sarge, contacts!” It was Lantar. His voice was a shrill whisper. “North from your position. Forty meters from mine. Stationary.”

Everyone was in motion in the blink of an eye, lowering visors and readying weapons. Saren quickly put his helmet back on.

“Cloak and hold position,” Kryik said over the intercom. “Duon? Anything?”

“Not yet—oh. Yeah. They’re holed up between those rocks.”

A new navpoint notification appeared on Saren’s visor and he called down the tactical overlay. The rock formation was less than half a klick ahead. It was a textbook spot for an ambush, assuming anyone would be stupid enough to walk straight down the shallow ravine that ended there. Which, of course, presented possibilities. Lantar’s position was east of it. Duon’s was west. The other fire-team was a close-knit triangle of blue dots near the western range-limit of his scanner.

Kryik and his men had crouched in the cover of the ganut stump. Saren lowered himself on one knee, unholstered his right-hand pistol and gave it a cursory inspection. Adrenaline had cleared his mind and the air-conditioning in the sealed helmet was a literal breath of fresh air.

“How many?” Kryik asked.

“At least a dozen,” Lantar said. “They’re all bunched up at the edge of my radar. No visual.”

“I got a visual,” Duon said. “Can’t tell their numbers. But I see some vorcha, and they have varren. It’s the Blood Pack, Sarge.”

“Hold on.”

Saren tapped the icon for his private channel with Kryik before it had the chance to start blinking.

“How do we proceed, sir? We have the radar range advantage. If we make a wide enough circle, we could avoid engagement.”

“I doubt that,” Saren said. “The odds of an accidental encounter here, in the middle of nowhere, are negligible. They’re waiting for us and they’re likely not alone. Besides, we need prisoners.”

“But how did they find us?”

“Good question.” That Wortag character had instructed Okeer to land at the Claw. It wouldn’t have been too hard to predict that Saren would head that way in pursuit, even for the thugs running the Blood Pack. But only under the assumption that they knew the Wisp had not self-destructed in time to erase proof of Okeer’s communication with Wortag. And if Kryik’s suspicions had merit, they could’ve learned this from a collaborator within the IIC.

Unless they had some other way of tracking him. Not for the first time, Saren wondered if Okeer was skilled enough to tag his omni without his knowledge. A glance at his left hand reminded him of the dream and another violent shiver reminded him of the fever. The prospect of exertion in imminent combat was faintly nauseating. But even if he believed an engagement could be avoided, he couldn’t afford to wait for some random infirmity to pass.

He started to tell Kryik what was to be done, but changed his mind. “Options?”

Kryik’s helmet stared at him motionlessly for a few seconds before he brought up his omni and started scrolling though the map. “Sir. We could… play bait and let Mirene flank them. Pretend we just walked into it. Or we can wait for Mirene to surprise them from the rear, make them face the wrong way, then follow up from this side. Or… no, never mind.”

“Go on.”

“Well… we could also try to lure them out. We know they’re after you, sir.”

“You propose I play bait?” That had actually been Saren’s first thought, but he wanted to see Kryik squirm a little.

Instead, Kryik laughed. “No, sir. With all due respect, the Blood Pack has much more experience hunting in the jungle than you have hiding in it. It’d have to be me or one of my men. We’d swap omni-tools so I could transmit my position with your signature. Meanwhile you and the others cloak and ambush the pursuers along that ravine.”

He had a point. Saren was less apt at traversing the jungle than anyone in Kryik’s squad even without taking his illness in account. But he wasn’t swapping anything with anyone. Preposterous.

“You will come with me.”

“Sir?”

“Send the rest of this group to join Lantar, and the other—Duon. I’ll emit a fake distress call when everyone’s in position. Tell your men the goal is to take prisoners, not annihilate. Use grenades and heavy weapons only as a last resort.”

Kryik’s helmet hesitated more than long enough to spell out how he felt about Saren’s take on his brilliant plan. But at last he nodded. “Understood.”

“Good. Execute.”

The brief exchange exhausted him out of proportion. His breathing was short and guttural, his heartrate alarmingly elevated. While Kryik planned out the maneuver on the map and gave specific orders to the squad, he stole a glance at his vitals again. The fever was no longer mild. And all his major nodules were highlighted red on the tiny, low-res, but utterly dependable full-body snapshot. Of course the vaccine affected, and was affected by biotics, like every other detail of his body chemistry. How could it not be? He had been a fool to allow it. But had he refused, he’d likely be cursing himself for that, plagued by who knows what other affliction. Damn Okeer, and damn Invictus!


Kryik was efficient. He planned out the maneuver and briefed his men in minutes. They were just about to move out when shots were fired at a distance. A single, controlled three-round burst of the standard-issue turian assault rifle—then another, like the heartbeat of a startled hatchling.

“Who fired?” Kryik said over the intercom. Pan and Theeka, who had only made several steps eastward, crouched low in the grass and waited.

“Wasn’t us,” Mirene said.

“Not me,” Duon joined.

A few beats passed.

“Lantar?” Kryik said, doing a bad job at keeping anxiety out of his voice. “Lantar, report.”

There was nothing.

“They’re pouring out of their hole, Sarge,” Mirene said. “Toward Lantar’s last known position.”

Kryik cursed. “Change of plan.” He got up and set out after Pan and Theeka, catching up in three long strides and taking the lead. “We’re heading there, all four of us. You draw as close as you can and surprise them.”

“Got it.”

Kryik broke into a jog and by the time Saren hoisted himself up on his feet and started after him, he and his men had disappeared in the grainy dusk of the jungle already. He didn’t appreciate not being consulted, but he couldn’t be bothered to raise a fuss over it. Clearly, the plan they had agreed upon was no longer feasible, and trapping the enemy between the two teams was as reasonable a course of action as any. He wouldn’t rush into combat to save a man who would almost certainly be either dead or captured by the time he got there, but since it didn’t derail the mission, he didn’t care to argue the point.

The world had grown a few shades darker with clouds gathering above the crowns, and still a few more as Saren ventured under them. The shrubbery seemed intent to make his passage as difficult as possible, winding around his feet and whipping his visor. He struggled to keep up with Kryik and his men, who dashed and darted forward on his radar as they sought cover behind the trees. His heart thudded. Sweat broke all over him and his vision narrowed to a shady tunnel with a far-away circle of dim green in the end.

The low-pitched racket of the Blood Pack submachine guns drummed ahead, countered by the precise tic-tac-toc, tic-tac-toc of turian assault rifles. It was impossible to tell how far. The hollow trees wreaked havoc with the acoustics. There was still nothing on Saren’s radar, but enemy fire had slowed Kryik and his men down, and he finally caught up with them.

Kryik fired in the direction of unseen enemies from the cover of one tree while Pan and Theeka leap-frogged to another. Targets finally lit up on Saren’s radar, but not before he was clipped by a few badly aimed rounds. Nothing his shield couldn’t take, but it made his pulse race. He ran up to Kryik’s tree and leaned on it, desperately short of breath.

“You ok, sir? Took some fire there.”

“Fine.”

“Good thing the Blood Pack subscribes to the spray and pray philosophy in choice of weapons, eh?” Kryik shot two more bursts, taking out one red dot from the radar. “Ready to move?”

Hell, no. Saren readied his pistol and drew a deep breath. “I’ll go left, you go right.”

“Yes, sir.”

On some silent signal, Pan and Theeka opened fire from their new position. Kryik ran, half-crouched, for the next tree in the direction of the enemy. Saren followed after a second. He trusted Kryik’s men were trained well enough to not shoot him as he crossed their line of fire, but he didn’t entirely trust himself. Not in the state he was in. He moved cautiously, keeping low and lagging a few steps behind. Which possibly saved Kryik’s life.

A scrawny bush shook and rustled and a slick gray shadow leapt out. It was a varren, and at this range, its electric-shock attack would obliterate Kryik’s shield and likely make him jump right into crossfire. Saren lifted it together with a cloud of dirt and torn foliage in a knee-jerk reaction. How the hell did it manage to get so close without triggering the radar? He didn’t have the angle to shoot it and was about to call for an assist when a shotgun blast from behind tore its head off, a meter above ground, just as his field dissipated.

“Holy shit!” Theeka yelped, then laughed hysterically. “Fucking awesome!”

Saren couldn’t disagree more. The area of effect had been twice as wide, and the apex of the clumsy flight half as high as he intended. But that was the least of his worries. The simple mimetic sent burning sensations all along his left hand up to the nodule under the armpit, igniting it in brilliant, liquid pain. Stunned, he gracelessly stumbled ahead and finally rolled after Kryik until he hit something solid.

“Sir? What’s wrong?”

He got up on all fours, taking deep breaths and blinking tears out of his eyes. He hadn’t felt anything like this since puberty, when the dormant nodules had first stirred, as suddenly and violently as a dreamer from a nightmare.

“I don’t know,” he managed to force out just as a pattern of rounds etched itself into the dry bark centimeters above his head and rained splinters down his visor. He rolled over and sat up against the tree, breathing hard. Thankfully, he hadn’t dropped his pistol.

“You’re unwell,” Kryik said between shots. “Retreat back to camp. We’ll cover you.”

With every burst from his rifle, there was one less enemy on tactical. Saren remembered their first meeting and how overconfident the angry, young soldier sounded, swearing in his aim. He grinned in the privacy of his helmet. I’m as well as I’ll ever be. Care to test it?

“No,” he said aloud. The dizziness was passing.

“You said you’d take my orders in combat.”

“That was yesterday.” He spun to the left, picked a target—a crafty vorcha clawing up a tree—and shot it. Another popped up above a fallen branch, with a grenade launcher. It fired at the same time Saren did, and his round blew the grenade in its face.

“Nice shot,” Pan commented from behind.

The fire exchange intensified and the air became criss-crossed with trails and abuzz with rounds flying in all directions. More Blood Pack were coming. Saren wondered why the other team hadn’t attacked their rear yet. He had no idea how much time had passed since they had left the clearing.

But then everything happened at once. Pan and Theeka were on the move, but another varren—no, it was a vorcha—had managed to sneak up under their radars and Theeka tackled it hand-to-hand—while more vorcha advanced now, drawing Pan’s and Kryik’s fire—from what? Saren squinted, zooming in, and there—towering almost a meter above the fleeting shadows of the vorcha and bobbing ponderously from side to side like a giant egg, a large krogan entered the scene.

Saren shot him once, twice, and after the third shot the krogan reeled back, but did not fall. Instead he roared and tilted forward. In the second it took Saren to realize what this meant, the krogan had begun a run-up to a charge and was already half-way to melee range, paying no heed to the hail of fire coming from all sides—and Theeka, who had won the duel and knelt on top of her fallen enemy, was right in his path.

Kryik yelled, “Get away, get away!” and she gritted, “Shit, shit, shit!” at the same time, moving to roll. But it was too late. Collision was imminent, and it would be fatal.

Bracing for another surge of pain, Saren lashed out with his left arm to seed a singularity in the krogan’s path. But the pain almost took him out regardless. This time the liquid fire reached his spine and forked up into the back of his head and down into his groin. While he helplessly folded forward, he cursed himself for failing to give Kryik a heads up. What were the odds he’d remember the grenades?

But then the ground shook and the thunder of a biotic explosion cracked through the air. It pushed him out of cover and rolled him on his back, splashing grass, dirt and bloody bits of alien entrails over his visor.

Saren realized he was about to throw up. He took off his helmet and let it roll away. The pain had him in seizures. He dry-heaved, but only a bit of bile that tasted revoltingly sweet in his mouth came out. He spat out, fighting the spasms, and tried to orient himself.

It was very quiet. The grenade combo had flung Kryik out of cover as well. He lay on the ground, not far ahead, and wasn’t moving. The others were out of sight. It looked like the entire enemy force had been swept up by the explosion and the sounds of a firefight were distant. Someone was moving, though. A heavy, slow gait, closing in on Saren from behind.

He got up on one knee, heart drumming. His pistol was nowhere to be seen. He reached for the other one—and froze as the cold muzzle of a weapon touched the back of his head. The deep rumble of krogan laughter followed.

“You’re not half as dangerous as Okeer said,” the krogan drawled. “Look at you. Squirming in the mud like a worm.” He laughed some more.

Saren brought his hands up in slow motion. Stall for time. Till his head cleared. He was about to start speaking when the krogan’s armored fingers pinched his crest.

“What’s this, eh? You some kind of freak?”

Unable to stop the reflex, Saren raised his barrier. It was a mistake. The last mistake he would ever make. It burned from within, like a hundred incendiary rounds hitting his body at once. It also failed, bursting in a shower of useless sparks. And even if it had held, it wouldn’t have saved him from a point-blank head-shot.

What saved him was sudden motion in front. Kryik leaped up from the ground as if electrocuted, armed with nothing but flailing limbs and a madman’s warcry, muffled by his helmet. The krogan’s weapon swished upward next to Saren’s ear and his body reacted before he could think about it. He caught the weapon—a massive, greasy shotgun—by the barrel just as it fired. They wrestled for it, but Saren was at a disadvantage, trying to fend off an opponent several times his mass from below. The krogan loomed over him, growling. His armor was burned to a crisp and a crack along the chest creaked and splintered when he leaned down. A feral orange eye peered at Saren from a large hole on his visor, burning with bloodlust.

The last thing Saren saw, or thought he saw, was Kryik, executing a jet-aided jump to pound the krogan from above. They all crashed in a heap and the world faded out.


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