Location: Tuchanka Wastes – Southwest of Kelphic Valley
Assignment: Aggressive Diplomacy
Tarquin could not quite put to words what exactly he felt that moment. It felt most reminiscent of regret. Yes, regret would do.
Between the strange metal device rattling inside his helmet – the "psi-screen" as Kerrigan called it, the desolate landscape, and of course the prospect before them … well. Something inside Tarquin told him that he might have stepped just a tad too far. The broken concrete crunched underfoot. The remnants of krogan buildings loomed over them like the skeletons of giants.
I am not limping away from this. Still, he had to acknowledge it took a certain kind of … bloody mindedness … to press on in what anyone would consider dire circumstances.
"You're quiet." Sarah Kerrigan's voice sounded … shit, he did not know. His experience with terrans in his entire lifetime consisted of the past few hours. So far their only consistent quality had been being loud and nosy. Scratch that, the ghost was quiet enough, same as him. Nosiness remained the only constant. Whatever the terran felt beneath it all would remain a mystery. As well as the rest, courtesy of the psi-screen. "That thing is working, by the way. Turians are always a hard read, but I know you guys well-enough. The soldiers at least. The men at least. I can't hear a peep out of you."
"Just … trying to figure out how to play this." His HME suit rested back inside the Hyperion, partially because sneaking it out would have been an impractical nightmare and partially because, well, if things went badly, he wanted his team to still have that HME. So his armor consisted of a hardsuit designed to keep out space (and not zerg claws) a sidearm loaded with incendiary rounds that had, again, been designed to fight enemy infantry (and not armored zerg), and an omnitool that had been configured for screwing with enemies with a similar level of technological development (again, not the zerg.) Really, his only armor at this point was good intentions, and his only weapon desperation. If this goes badly…
"I'll protect you," said Kerrigan, the tone of her voice still hard to discern. Volus are an easier read than this. Does it get easier? "No matter what happens … I am one of the deadliest people walking this planet right now. Believe that." She looked out to the dusty horizon. "She knows."
Yes, you've certainly proven deadly to turians. Tarquin cast a glance at his companion as he thought that, his own mandibles twitching. Unwise; don't think that again. The psi-screen rattled in his helmet. She gave no sign of having heard anything. She did, however, turn to face him after a few moments. The corners of her mouth tugged upward, displaying white teeth. Is that a threat display? It must be some form of psychological arousal. Fuck this. Tarquin turned back to the road ahead of them, grateful for the helmet, and resolving only to speak when spoken to. Last thing I need is to anger a terran whose last major act was killing a well-known turian…
"How do you want to play this, Victus?" asked Kerrigan, making Tarquin inwardly sigh with desperation.
"I want to leave with all of my limbs," Tarquin replied slowly, "having secured a new ally for the Hierarchy and a plan to vanquish all of our enemies." That sounds unrealistic. "Enemies on Tuchanka, I mean." Still unrealistic. "Mostly, I just want the bomb moved and safely disposed of." Realism to be determined … by the grace of the zerg. Scratch that, unrealistic. Stick to the limbs.
"Those are goals, Victus," said Kerrigan, "but not how you plan to achieve them. Play this, as in, how do you want to approach this Zerg Queen?"
"Slowly." Tarquin paused, thinking. "Give no ground. They might tear me apart, but that would leave Priestess in charge. And she would call Palaven on those bastards in a heartbeat. Already said as much." We have the upper hand. Not in the immediate sense, mind. Tarquin's heart beat faster.
"She does have reason to be afraid of us," said Kerrigan after a few moment's pause. "You're … not worried about being torn apart?"
"They'll regret it if they do. It doesn't matter what happens to me." Of course I'm afraid, woman! But I scarcely matter in the grand scheme of things, and I readily acknowledge that!
"You matter, Tarquin." It would have sounded less hollow coming from someone who was not a total stranger.
"What about you, ma'am?" asked Tarquin, before inwardly cursing at breaking the "speak when spoken to" rule.
"I'm going to speak to her as an equal, which I have reason to believe I am." Kerrigan shut her eyes momentarily at this, as if suppressing some kind of pain – if that was indeed a terran response. "She's desperate, deep down, same as me."
Desperate. The galaxy would have desperation in spades, soon enough. Still, it takes a peculiar amount of desperation to wake up a prisoner in the middle of the night, hand him a valuable piece of military equipment that would block her telepathy, and tell him they could see the zerg if they wanted…
"Why are you desperate?" asked Tarquin, realizing the stupidity of the question as it slipped from his mouth.
The terran turned to Tarquin again, the mouth twitching once more into that threat display(?)
"Because I've fucked up a few too many times." Kerrigan looked away. "So I have to fight hard to make things right." Ah. Perhaps I can understand this terran at least. "You?"
Tarquin's breath caught in his throat momentarily. He … did not want to answer the question. Weak. You're weak. Not in front of the terran. She has been honest. Do the same!
"I will not limp away from this. I will not leave Captain Regis's final mission listed as a failure." Tarquin's talons twitched beneath the gloves, curling up into sharp little fists. "And I am a Victus, currently in charge of the operation. I think about my father and what he would do."
"I was there for first contact," said Kerrigan gently, as they passed under the shadow of a crumbling tower. "I had to make sense of your father's mind. He helped establish first contact between terran and turian."
"And now I will establish first contact between zerg and turian." Forgot you were there for that. You were … inside my father's mind? Then, because he could not help himself, he had to ask … "What did you see?"
Underneath the shadow, it was difficult to discern the reaction. Still, Kerrigan stopped dead for a moment, eyes shut, perhaps remembering. "I saw you, mostly."
"Ah." Tarquin stopped, leaving the two of them both standing in the cool shade. This is what comes of questioning terrans, you fool. Heartbreak and nostalgia. Hardly worthy emotions for a Blackwatch captain. "I apologize, I was not expecting that response. We should keep moving. We may attract zerg."
"I know exactly where all the zerg are, Captain." Kerrigan started moving again. "They are close by and watching … but their queen does not want us harmed. We are close. Just up this hill."
The hill, such as it was, appeared comprised of dust, ash, and the occasional jutting piece of metal. Traversing it would have been a nightmare in the HME, making it a small mercy that Tarquin had left it behind. Traversing it just his hardsuit, however, proved little better. He sunk up to his waist relatively quickly while Kerrigan loped ahead, leaving him to struggle upwards. She waited above at the vantage point, goggles pulled down over her face while Tarquin took uneasy step after uneasy step, hoping against hope he did not brush against anything moving during his ascent.
"I don't think you are going to like this, Captain," muttered Kerrigan as he finally found his footing atop the hill, shaking the dust free from his armor. Tarquin took one look down at the land below and, surprise, he did not like what he saw.
Mutalisks milled about in the sky while the overlords hovered in place. Hydralisks and viscerators emerged and vanished beneath the earth, their laughter and hissing echoing from below. But the worst remained the great pulsating blob at the center of their encampment, for lack of a better word. Two stories of twitching and throbbing membrane, covered in thick veins, its mass expanding by the second.
"This is how a hive cluster starts," murmured Kerrigan.
"I know how hive clusters start!" snapped Tarquin. "I read the manuals on zerg warfare. My father even wrote sections of it, in what time he had."
"And what did the manual say to do in the event of a hive cluster forming?"
"Try to determine if it is wild zerg or if there is some form of higher intelligence behind it." Tarquin gulped. "Yes or no, the next stage was always to neutralize it from orbit. The Council Law on dreadnought fire on garden worlds would be rescinded in such an eventuality."
"So that is what the book says." Tarquin winced beneath his helmet. "But we never had a manual on, uh, zerg diplomacy. I suppose I must be the one to write it."
"That's the spirit!" Sarcasm, perhaps. Or genuine enthusiasm, if she was insane. Tarquin could see it going in either direction. She extended a gloved hand in her direction, gesturing to the slope before them with the other. Yes, stability would be helpful. He clutched the terran's hand gratefully and the two of them slid down the slope together, Tarquin somehow feeling a good deal lighter than he had on the way up. It was not until he reached the bottom that he realized that was likely Kerrigan's doing. Would have been nice having that on the way up…
The viscerators leered at them at their approach, their yellow eyes flashing as they strode as close as they dared to the central tunnel entrance. The hydralisks paid them no mind as they slithered past, and it was all Tarquin could do to not reach for his pistol. Even Kerrigan seemed at edge, pointedly stopping as a pair of zerglings loped past them and down another, smaller tunnel. The mutalisks screamed above them. Just ahead of them, in the shadow of the pulsating cocoon, a krogan clambered atop a mighty stone.
"Behold the Queen of Ruins!" he bellowed, voice echoing in a manner no krogan voice should. Tarquin glanced at Kerrigan, whose eyes remained fixed at the earth just before them … which rumbled. Once. Twice. Tarquin gritted his teeth as the foundation began to crack.
With a boom, a great plume of dust erupted from the crack. A shadow leapt straight up into the air, casting them in shade as it blotted out the sun. Great skeletal wings spread to either side of the form with a fwumph, and Tarquin shielded his eyes with a hand to get a better look. The Queen of Ruins descended slowly, revealing a smaller form than he had originally anticipated. She landed lightly on flat, talon-tipped feet. If anything, she stood of a height with Kerrigan … but Kerrigan's eyes did not glow a fierce blue as hers did. The air did not thicken in her presence. The sound of buzzing did not grow louder.
The Queen of Ruins looked asari but smelled zerg. Her face remained recognizable, even with the mandibles (which if anything, improved the overall appearance of asari, as far as Tarquin was concerned), and she maintained the funny bumps which had so vexed his father in both form and function. Thick purple carapace coated her, however, instead of the typical asari blue. Her tendrils extended further back and into thick chains of chitin, which clinked against the back of her armored neck as she strode towards them.
And of course, there were the wings. Tarquin noted the hollowness of them, the openings at the tip that snapped shut at her approach. He doubted they were primarily intended for flight … he suspected such beings did not need wings to fly. The Queen of Ruins stood before them, shorter in stature than Tarquin but taller in presence. When she spoke, Tarquin talons tightened into his palm at the sight of her pointed teeth.
"I am the Queen of Ruins," she said, and her voice echoed as the krogan's did, yet unlike the infested krogan her voice did not merely assault Tarquin's ears, but it struck home within, as well. Is the screen working? "That is the name I have chosen to lead the zerg. However, once I was known as Liara T'soni. I would prefer if you called me that, frankly. To whom do I speak?"
Formal and melodramatic. Bursting from the earth was hardly necessary. Some asari traits remained intact. If anything, the Queen of Ruins put Tarquin in the mind of an asari matriarch, full of pomp and genuine power. He knew how to deal with them well-enough, up to and including honey-pot strategies, something Vice had studied with a rare single-minded fervor. He very much doubted (and strongly hoped) that such lessons would not apply here.
"Spectre Sarah Kerrigan, representing Cerberus and Raynor's Raiders in an unofficial and unauthorized capacity." The terran lowered her upper torso, but her face remained fixed on the queen's. She looked to Tarquin.
"Lieu – uh. Captain Tarquin Victus, Turian Blackwatch. Representing the Turian Hierarchy in a currently unofficial capacity." Tarquin lowered his legs slightly in the traditional turian-asari bow, something he hoped the Queen of Ruins would recognize. Judging by the pleased look she gave him, he guessed it did.
"Turians used to do that before my mother," she said, her voice trailing off. "Hmm. Well-met then, Captain Victus and Spectre Kerrigan. Your reputation of course precedes you," here, the Queen inclined her head towards Kerrigan, "but you are a stranger to me. Tell me, was your father General Adrien Victus?"
"Died fighting zerg." It slipped out. Tarquin's talons dug in deeper to his palm. Fighting you. There was something he had to know. "When the Overmind died on Thessia, where were you?"
"Therum. …gestating." The Queen of Ruins spread her hands (tipped with thick talons worthy of any turian) wide. "I was horrified to awake to this. I have had seven years since to come to grips with it. And about time, I think." She lowered her hands to her side and cocked her head. "So no, I was not anywhere near your father when he sacrificed himself, Tarquin. I was never under the Overmind's control. When I was … reborn, It was quite dead. I suppose I have your father to thank for my freedom, such as it is."
"But you took up that Thing's mantle."
"I rule in conjunction with my rachni broods."
"Rachni?!" Sarah placed a hand on Tarquin's arm as he stepped forward. What fresh hell is this?! Rachni and zerg?
"Uninfested rachni. We rule in conjunction, united in song." Liara bore her teeth in a vague facsimile of an asari smile. It did not make her look less frightening. "Krogan, vorcha, asari, elcor … the galaxy's leavings. I intend to bring them all under my fold. Give them purpose."
"Fighting the Reapers," said Kerrigan.
"Yes. Just the Reapers, if I can help it." The once-asari cocked her head, making her chitin tendrils rattle against her armored collarbone. "Can I? Or should I vacate this planet? I have no desire to expend my strength against the Hierarchy, nor the terrans, nor particularly the protoss." She began to pace back and forth, her feet light against the dust, leaving no footprint. "I intend to take all of the zerg from this planet and bear them up in my swarm. They will be destroyed or assimilated for the good of the galaxy and the Swarm. But I will not take a single innocent life to do this. If you wish it, I will leave."
"Leaving behind quite a few broods of infested krogan, as well as assorted wild zerg," continued Kerrigan, folding her arms.
"The lives lost fighting them would be fewer than the lives lost fighting me." She did not intend it as a boast, as far as Tarquin could tell. But there it stood, uncontested. "The protoss, too, are responsible for my freedom. I have never spoken to one directly, but would relish the opportunity, if only to justify my own existence."
"They would try to destroy you before you could speak," said Tarquin, regretting the words as soon as they left his mouth. Have to salvage that. "I hope that, by our presence here, we make our disagreement with such an extreme action clear." I overdid it.
The cocoon burst open, the membranes flying apart in a thin spray of red fluid. A great structure of flesh rose from the ruins of the sac, several tubes bound together in some sort of obelisk of skin. From the foundation, a thick layer of scaly purple substance spread from the structure in a rising tide of purple. Tarquin remained stock still as it reached his boots and encircled them. Around him it spread unfettered, leaving Kerrigan and himself standing entrenched amidst a lake of organic material. The Queen of Ruins smiled again.
"Lift your foot," she said gently. Tarquin lifted his right foot, and the Creep spread neatly over it, adjoining the rest of the surface. He placed his foot on top of the material, expecting a sense of hollowness, given he had just stood there. It felt as solid as any steel. He lifted his other foot, and then placed it back down. He now stood atop a carpet of flesh. Spirits. When he looked to Kerrigan, he could see the top of her head had sprouted fresh wrinkles. Concern?
"It is not foolish to want me and mine destroyed." The Queen of Ruins now stood closer to them than before. The sense of power emanating from her almost felt audible. Does the buzzing come from the bugs? Or is it like standing next to an electrical power station? He wondered what would happen if he just reached out and touched her…
Instead, Tarquin opted to speak. "It is foolish to dismiss alliances with enemies while in desperate circumstances. If anything, we are in desperate need of disposable soldiers to throw at the enemy."
Kerrigan shot him a look. Perhaps not the best phrasing. But the Queen of Ruins did not seem to mind.
"My thoughts precisely. An asari commando is decades in the making, centuries in the mastery. Do you know how long it will take those eggs to hatch?" Eggs? Tarquin followed the Queen of Ruins's extended finger. An egg waited at the bottom of the fleshy tubes, one for each. "Six minutes."
From orbit. All of it. What does one more crater in Tuchanka matter? Dad died to stop this!
"So. Can you convince you and yours to refrain from orbital sterilization?" Tarquin shot Kerrigan another look, frantically wondering if his psi-screen was working.
"If you are willing to lend your expertise," replied Kerrigan, slowly. "I believe Tarquin has the easier ask."
"You require our assistance?" Tarquin did not like the shift to third person. The Queen of Ruins spread her arms wide. "I will require some time to cow the krogan broods, but I will not leave any Reapers on the planet's surface if I can help it. So long as we are working towards that goal, I am willing to lend my Swarm."
"I need you to dig up a nuke," croaked Tarquin. "Old turian bomb beneath the Kelphic Valley. Planted after the rebellions. We lost most of our personnel and equipment of the involuntary descent."
"You need me because zerg are good at digging." Was that … amusement, in her voice? "I see. This is indeed a relatively simple ask. More will need to go into it, of course, but I would be more than happy to remove a nuclear weapon from beneath a heavily populated area. Wouldn't anyone, had they the power?"
"I can think of several people who would not," replied Kerrigan, sounding none too happy about it. The Queen of Ruins … chuckled?
"Well, you will not find one here. Yes, Captain Victus, I am willing to lend my assistance. In return, I ask that you relay my willingness to help and desire for peace to the Turian Hierarchy. Beneath it all is … I visited Palaven, a few times. As a girl." And that girl is gone. But he understood the sentiment. Appreciated it, even. She wants to help. She remembers Palaven.
"But that leaves the terrans. Do you speak for all of them?" Kerrigan traced a circle in the Creep with her foot. It twitched at the passage of her toe.
"I can convince a few of them. But even the majority of the terrans on this planet? No … they're UED. And I'm not sure how much weight my voice will carry." She raised a finger. "But I have Jim's ear. And he could convince quite a few people."
"Jim Raynor?" asked the Queen of Ruins. Kerrigan nodded. "I am … anxious to meet him. Very well. I understand you are a particularly fractious species – most unzerglike. What is it that you ask of me?"
"Two things." Kerrigan lifted a finger. "Destruction of all Reaper dreadnoughts and ground forces present on the planet. We will do whatever we can to make sure the protoss stay off your back; we're good friends with one of the lead praetors."
"Praetor Fenix," said Liara. Kerrigan nodded. "Him, we are not so anxious to meet." She rolled her armored shoulders. "You are asking me to do that which I would gladly do, as soon as it is within my power. If anything, the nuke was the harder ask."
"Two." Kerrigan lifted another finger. Tarquin could not help but feel his own talons twitch as he watched. "I need your assistance with biology and gene splicing. We … we need to cure the krogan. We need disposal ground units. As he said." Kerrigan pointed to Tarquin, who had already opted to leave this particular portion of the exchange out of this report. Me? No, I said no such thing. Wait ... curing the krogan? The shock drained quickly, though. He already stood on top of zerg Creep, negotiating with the Overmind's replacement, who was already rearing rachni. If anything, they should cure the krogan just so the ensuing rebellion would busy themselves with the Swarm 2.0 instead of what was left of Council space.
"Cure the krogan?" The Queen of Ruins's mandibles twitched. "A … bold move. To my knowledge two cures exist already: infestation and the UED's cure."
"Both come with obvious drawbacks, Liara."
"Do you object to this notion, Captain?" asked the Queen.
Tarquin's own mandibles twitched at this. He looked the abomination directly in the eye.
"Out of all of this, a krogan cure is perhaps the least objectionable proposal I've heard today. At least krogan don't produce…" Tarquin suppressed a gag as he pointed at the zerg hatchery, which had just slimily disgorged a squirming larva on to the Creep.
"Yes." The Queen of Ruins nodded. "Yes, I understand that we have passed a certain threshold of reason. Still, I must wonder – what precisely do you think I can do, beyond infesting all krogan, something I assume most do not want?"
"Whatever you can. I would not see them slaved to either of our species."
Noted. That was certainly going in the report. For all of her Garrus-killing ways, well, that was the most fundamentally decent thing Tarquin had heard from anyone in a while.
"I do have an … expert, on such subject matter." The Queen of Ruins sounded decidedly uncomfortable saying this. "He may have vital input for your own experts but he has … zerg views … on a lot of things. I will have to keep a close eye on his work."
"The zerg have scientists?" asked Tarquin. Horror compounds on horror.
"Just the one." The Queen of Ruins smiled again. Or at least, she showed a lot of pointy teeth. "I will not tell you to feel unafraid because, well, he is one of the Overmind's at heart. But I can lend you his expertise if you require it. He is perhaps uniquely suited to such a task … but a cure without infestation might be a bit of a hard sell to him."
"We have a salarian and a krogan who will keep a very close eye on his work," replied Kerrigan.
"The krogan have scientists?" asked Liara.
"Just the one."
This time Liara laughed fully, a spectacle both frightening and somehow delightful.
"Well. And here I thought … never mind. There is always room to learn." The Queen of Ruins inclined her head to the pair of them. "I will do what I can, for your people. I only ask that you leave mine in peace. Assist us where able."
"Reasonable." Tarquin nodded, gave another turian bow. The Queen of Ruins smiled at him again. He wished she would stop. "I will not be reporting back to the Hierarchy until my mission is complete, and most of my team is gone. Nevertheless, we will give you what aid we can. Blackwatch does not improvise."
"Because you have a plan for everything? Even this?" The Queen of Ruins gave another low chuckle. "Very well, Captain."
Kerrigan looked to Tarquin again and this time, tried angling her legs downward, lowering her torso. Ah. An attempted turian-asari bow.
"A noble effort," murmured the Queen of Ruins, "but typically reserved for turians and asari. Surely the terrans have come up with an equivalent."
Kerrigan rolled her shoulders. "We shout "yee-haw" and crack open a beer. Well, the Raiders do, at least."
"Yee-haw," pondered the Queen. "Very well. If that is all … I have, ah, zerg business to attend to."
I do not want to be around for zerg business.
"Then we must part." Kerrigan nodded. "Hopefully our people won't be too upset by what we've done. Quite a few of them were on Thessia."
"I was not there." The Queen of Ruins began to vibrate, the Creep parting to allow her passage. Her head was soon level with the ground. "Tell them that." Then she was gone, leaving them alone with the bugs. Ahead of them, the eggs burst open. The dekuunalisks roared at the sky.
"We're gone," said Tarquin, turning to leave. Kerrigan did not reply, only followed, and at a very brisk pace. He felt the eyes on the back of his head as he left. Too many eyes.
They did not speak until they had crested the hill again, at a far greater speed than before. The buzzing grew quieter, before fading entirely. Tarquin did not even realize he had been holding his breath until he let it all out in a great whoosh. Kerrigan appeared to have done the same.
"Nice lady," said Kerrigan. Sarcasm again? Or some form of irony. "Must like the color yellow. Did you see that hatchery, and her zerg? Most zerg I've seen had purple carapaces." I … did not notice that.
"We all have our personal tastes. And we can make use of her forces," Tarquin replied slowly. "And she seems to be acting … reasonably. But who knows what she will become as her Swarm grows?"
"A problem for tomorrow, if there is one." Same as the krogan then. Tarquin wondered just how many short-term solutions they would go through for this war, and how many long-term problems would linger. Salarians would be doing shit like this. This is what it has come to. What would father do?
It was difficult to fathom. But as far as he could tell, setting the zerg on the Reapers created only wins for the Hierarchy as a whole, for the moment at least. They could only hope that the victor would be weak enough at the end of it all to be permanently extinguished by the Council's armadas. What's left of them.
"As for problems for today…" Kerrigan put her hands on her hips. "The Shroud is gone, according to Wrex. Even if we develop a cure, it's going to be slow going to disperse it. Crap … should have asked her to put together some sort of Swarm delivery service." They passed again under the shadow of the collapsing tower. "Still, I doubt the protoss would like that."
Tarquin looked up, blinking, as the sun came roaring back into focus. The skies of Tuchanka above remained choked with dust and ash, several concurrent nuclear winters still raging. What would father do … hold on.
"Hmph," said Tarquin, somewhat wishing Kerrigan could read his mind at that instant. "Might have an idea on that."
"A good one?"
"No. Just more insanity," replied Tarquin, looking to Kerrigan and smiling beneath his own helmet. "But what's a little more insanity at this point?" He gestured to the road before them. "Let's keep moving."
Next Chapter: James