Coarse dust landed with a strange weight on the luminous green filth that adorned Tojendi's armoured shoulder. It was a good thing too. That curious excess weight pulled the krogan's attention to the slime, which was eating through his armour. With a deep sigh that sounded more like a growl, he positioned his sword and scraped the acidic rachni blood to the floor. As he disturbed it, it mingled with the dust and became thicker.
'This stuff is the worst part of the job,' he muttered, cleaning the ancient blade against his pauldron. 'When you went out killing animals at home, you wanted as much blood on you as possible. It impressed folks. In this war you've got to keep shovelling the stuff off of yourself.'
From behind him appeared a small, glass-helmeted blue face. 'Not animals, Capt,' said a chirpy but velvet voice. Those gentle, feminine words would have sounded convincing to another of her kind, but to Tojendi's ears she just came off as suspicious.
'Yeah I know that,' the Captain replied, with only a small measure of irritation. 'We have spiders on Tuchanka. Big spiders that look just like these, uh… people. After killing the things every day for four hundred years, sometimes you forget that rachni can build spaceships. Sure as hell don't look like it from here.'
Naromi could see his point. Tojendi spoke at the centre of a hastily-dug subterranean tunnel, barely tall enough for his frame and making him appear even more hunched over than usual. The rachni, sentient and civilised as they were, apparently did not see the need to set up lights in their underground lairs, so she and the Captain were forced to move slowly and quietly, and with a powerful torch in one hand.
The asari wore a spacesuit over her clothes, which distorted her voice slightly and made it impossible to adjust her eyeglasses, but she had no intention of removing the helmet. Tojendi had assured her there was plenty of breathable air down here, but she was hoping the extra layer would protect her from the strongly acidic green soup the rachni secreted as a defence mechanism-cum weapon. She had been a part of the Wars for less than an hour, but had already learned that the insect people were extremely fond of that particular form of attack.
'They're strange all right. I've come to hear them sing.'
'Ain't exactly singing. Only asari reporters call it that. It's just like any other insect noise, but louder and deeper, and it's probably just battle plans at that. It's not worth hearing. That what you're doing following me all the way down here? Waiting to hear these people of yours make pretty noises like they're in a zoo?'
'Yes,' she answered simply, not noting any anger in his voice. Just curiosity and disbelief. 'I've heard a lot about their singing. And this war is… I need to hear them sing.' There was a silence, which she broke with the bubbly exclamation, 'I think they're a fascinating people!' She hoped it would annoy him.
'Fascinating how they managed to take out the rest of the group so quickly. One of them was a member of my family, so stop grinning. '
Again, Tojendi had a fine point. Humbled, Naromi nodded to herself. Despite the deaths, this whole trip had seemed like teriffic fun to her. But having the Captain around subdued her natural enthusiasm a little. She had expected working with krogan to be a bloody, comical and explosive adventure; the kind of thing the extranet shows to the seventy-year-olds and the salarian boys. But Captain Var Tojendi was a serious sort, and he brought her down. He didn't even swear.
Once the two had resumed their methodical walk through the dirt tunnel, she asked a question. 'You're not like other krogan, you know that?'
'You see! You see? Most of your men would have told me to hakh off.'
Naromi could see the enormous, black, reptilian head shaking slightly. His thinly-accented voice rose like a rumble of thunder at the very end of a storm. 'Shows how many krogan you know. Most of my men would knock you out. You're too loud and it's endangering the mission.'
She took to whispering. 'I can't be that bad. I'm still alive, aren't I?'
'Yeah, you can handle a pistol and push things with your thoughts. Good for you. But you're not any kind of soldier, so be quiet and shine that torch in front of us.'
'Oh yes I am.'
'I am some kind of a soldier. Just not a high rank. I completed training and primary service with the New Commandos. That was a long time ago before I really signed up…'
The asari decided this was Tojendi's subtle way of asking her to explain her brief military background in minute detail. After a while the whispered words began to merge together and he relaxed into the job of inching forward and keeping one ear on the tone of her words. The girl was good at biotics, but she didn't realise the connection she had to the rachni. For whatever reason, she seemed to know when they were coming. Or at least, she didn't know but he could tell by her behaviour.
Muffled by the big, round helmet, the story continued for half a mile. He had to prod her from time to time to keep her going, but it was easy. This one liked to talk, particularly about herself. Once the tunnel became a little wider, Naromi started to get aggressive. As more and more of her old classmates were vilified and sentences became shorter and sharper, Tojendi readied his senses and his guns. He fixed the flashlight to his armour when she stopped whispering all together, and he held a hand to her mouth.
The hand stopped at her helmet of course, but it had the desired effect of silencing Naromi when she noticed that the krogan's palms were a strikingly different colour to the rest of him. His unexposed skin was a pale, summery yellow. She became fascinated by it for a moment, studying the parts where the yellow became a thin line of dirty, reptilian green before merging with the usual black.
Then she heard it too. A hurried scratching from beneath them. She didn't need to follow the krogan's lead to know what was responsible or where to go. Torch lights flying from left to right, they scrambled into a relatively tall cavern and backed off a little from the centre.
'Get that light on the… good.' Tojendi didn't need to say 'ground'. His machine pistols moved with mechanical precision as pieces of the soil burst open, revealing tiny arachnids bunched together in little air pockets, hurling themselves madly out of the floor and toward Tojendi's body. One by one they fell, their little bodies falling in two or three pieces, yielding to the sheer size of the bullets, until their numbers became too great.
Sacrificing the use of one pistol for a moment, the Captain jabbed a button on his back and allowed his thick helmet to slide over his head. Along the way it shunted into a ridge on his forehead. It hurt, but that happened nearly every time. The helmet snapped shut just quickly enough; the first thing he saw was that thick, slimey blood or whatever it was exploding out of one of the little drones, the force of the movement tearing off two of its legs and unceremoniously dropping the creature to the pile of fallen comrades. One less to worry about, but this suicidal tactic seemed to be gaining popularity, and soon his view was almost completely obscured by the goop of twenty or so Rachni workers, all but detonating their own bodies in the hope of their blood melting his helmet off.
It was a bizarre thing to witness, but it was proving much more effective than trying to stab him with their elongated talons had proved. Until now, these small ones had been easy work for Tojendi and his platoon. Just put your helmet on and shoot till the floor is green. But now he couldn't see, and that acid was all over him. Inside the suit was getting very warm, and the outside was heavy. There were maybe thirty of the bold insects, clinging to him and wearing his armour down.
He might have worried about his asari good luck charm, but he heard pistol shots from behind him and that curiously artificial 'whoosh' of her biotic ability creating false winds to limit the number of workers besieging them. Considering that he had met her as a mere messenger that morning, the girl could handle herself surprisingly well. Maybe she wasn't exaggerating about that military training. He'd been impressed by those asari commandos before, but this girl hadn't even seen action before.
Finally he heard some frantic clicking as she ran out of ammo, and decided there was only one thing for it. He tossed his guns behind him, hoping she would catch at least one, and threw himself to the floor. Here he rolled about, leaped up and slammed into walls, each sudden movement being rewarded with the weak crunch of the workers' brittle bones. Now the acid was on his hide in a lot of places. He kept at it. A few more battle scars wouldn't be so bad – he was just unhappy to be receiving them from soldiers the size of his foot. This embarrassment gave him more ferocity, and he threw himself harder, buffeted occasionally by biotically hurled air, until the covering fire stopped. He took a breath and stood. There was no shuffling to be heard from the little rachni.
'Are we done?'
'They… they're all gone. Are you all right?'
Rather than answer the question, which he considered unnecessary, he reached for the helmet release button, but found only his own neck, slathered in rachni blood, burning into the soft skin beneath his plates. The button and everything around it were gone. In an instant he realised he had been ignoring the pain, and the whole of it hit him at once.
Naromi told him that, 'Capt, your arm has a… big hole in it!' and as a reward she finally heard the Captain swear.
It took a minute to recover from the pain, but Tojendi spent it scraping acid from his skin and pulling away chunks of sizzling steel armour. Some of them took with them layers of skin, fused to them by sticky, boiling blood in two colours. Naromi managed not to irritate him by talking more and actually helped remove a lot of the remaining slime.
When his skin had cooled enough, he checked and found she hadn't been wrong. The underside of his arm, which had been protected only by fabric and a thin sheet of plastic, was burned almost to the bone in one spot. He tried moving it. Incredibly painful, but do-able. He would have shrugged it off, but he knew he had one more big fight to go.
'I'm all right,' he told her. 'And we must be near her now.'
'The Queen? How d'you know?'
Tojendi removed the final piece of his helmet with clenched teeth, happily invisible to the asari under his thick lips. 'Did you notice how they were tearing themselves into pieces so they could kill me?'
'Well, obviously yes.'
'Don't forget these are people, not animals.' He smiled, attempting sarcasm, but she laughed along with him. 'If a squad of people do that to themselves just to hurt you, it means either they're out of their minds or trying very hard to protect something. That something's gotta be important, and this place doesn't have anything except soil, hundreds of soldiers and my quarry.'
She nodded. 'So tell me why you came all the way down here, alone with just pistols and the thinnest sword I ever saw a krogan use, just to take the Queen?'
A derisive snort left Tojendi's charred nostrils. 'Well I guess you really haven't been soldiering long. These Queens are what the war's all about. You ought to know that th…'
'Your men are guarding every exit to this nest. There's no way she's leaving. Why did you only bring the other two men, Goddess rest their lives? Why aren't we waiting for help?'
Tojendi tried walking. It hurt. That was fine. Stiffly, he walked away from her and rested on a wall, kicking green-painted remains away from his spot. 'You didn't read the message you gave me this morning?'
She shook her head, interested.
'This is my fourth Queen. I got my third last year, and when my platoon found the holes in the ground up there, I got impatient. So I scouted the tunnels and figured this was a Queen's nest.'
The Captain could tell by Naromi's blank expression that she wasn't understanding something. It could only have been that her asari superiors hadn't told her about the whole 'four Queens' thing. It figured that the asari would be so detached from the reality and the emotion of battle that they wouldn't even count their damn kills. That's why they were losing. That's why they needed to 'culturally elevate' his people to get them out of the mess they were in with the rachni.
Considering their reputation, those asari could be pretty stupid sometimes. Every sentient species ought to have figured out that if you want to succeed at a difficult task, you have to enjoy it. The krogan enjoyed killing big, dangerous creatures. They had to, because the planet they had the misfortune to evolve on was teeming with them. They learned quick. But when you live in an enormous metal hotel in the middle of space that you didn't have to build and you don't even have to maintain, you get soft and you get stupid. If they hadn't all learned telekinesis and trained those commandos, they'd all be dead. With a severe effort, he set off walking, the girl in tow with the torch as usual.
'Do your people play a game called Rall-Rallak?' he asked. She shook her head again, looking upon him expectantly, as if he were about to reveal the secret to eternal life. 'It's just a simple stones game,' he explained. 'We gamble with it. I'll make this simple… some of the stones have faces. Queens are the highest rank. Once you get four queens, that's a 'bag' and you instantly win.'
She looked impatient. 'We have a game of slides a lot like that.'
'You do? Weird coincidence. Thing is, the krogan army has a similar arrangement. We count our progress in these Wars by how many Queens we take out. We're wiping them out, see. And there's a prize for the soldier who can get himself a full bag. No-one's done it yet.'
'You'll have saved four entire planets,' the girl said quietly, a little awed.
'There's a medal. The Blood Sphere. Highest honour the army gives out. Moment of my life. And it's gonna happen when I find the Queen and cut her pretty head off. That's why I only brought two men. The message was permission to engage. From the top.'
Naromi started talking about how maybe it was wrong to kill the Queen when they could take her hostage. Tojendi didn't think the argument was good enough to answer but he kept her talking anyway so he knew when to get ready. After ten minutes or so the asari started getting twitchy. Good. This meant they were getting close. After fifteen she was angry, and after twenty she was very worried and talking to herself. The Captain was using her strange reactions to choose direction, but in a moment she just stopped talking.
He turned to face her. The ugly, round eyeglasses had fallen from her nose and she was looking at the floor, sad and deeply confused.
This was interesting, but he wanted the Queen. Dragged her behind, he searched unaided. Finally, out of the corner of his eye, Tojendi spotted a ray of white light reflecting off a surface in the next tunnel. Odd. Shouldn't be anything shiny here. He walked in there alone, his finger coiling around the trigger of his gun. That shiny surface was organic. Running now, he realised this was no tunnel. A huge, carefully constructed cave stretched out before him with straight walls and some rustic, but beautiful, woven carpet covering the floor. Soft artificial lights shone from the ceiling in shoots and swaths, vainly designed to resemble light from the surface. There was an odd smell, and in the very centre of the room…
The hulking, deadly, defenceless rachni Queen.
Lying immobile in a pool of blood.