A/N: Disclaimer of a general nature: characters (other than OCs) are not mine, I am just making them dance for other's enjoyment. And with that, welcome to Sinchi: Downfall. This is Part Two of a three part trilogy which began with 22 Sinchi. Each will be written so it's possible to understand as a standalone but it will probably make much more sense if you've come from Part One. Thanks to HugoCogs and Owelpost for their feedback on this opening chapter. And thanks as ever for reading and reviewing!
Vega had long ago learned to live with blood on his hands - it had just never been Normandy blood. There was a first time for everything. It didn't help that the threat of a major diplomatic incident snapped at his back, snarling hot, angry breaths down his neck. Vega's temples throbbed as if squeezed between a vise as the elevator doors opened onto the SSV Istanbul's hangar bay. It was big enough to swallow an entire frigate.
Deep down, Vega was still a simple marine. He belonged shipside. He took pride on getting the job done. The political shit-slinging that came with the Admiral's bars could usually be avoided. Or delegated.
But not today. Didn't matter if Wrex knocked his block off. It was Vega's duty to take Grunt home.
The thought stiffened his spine; he squared his shoulders. Squinting, he could make out the plinth bearing Grunt's casket, wreathed in dim blue glow. He started towards it, polished boots clanging against the corrugated metal floor.
As he crossed the bay, he absorbed the whir of repair tools on a shuttle console, the clatter of armour pieces being stacked together, the unmistakable smoky tang of gun oil. If he let his eyes slip shut he could wish himself back twenty-some years; see the shotgun parts strewn across his weapons bench and hear Steve behind him, focused on something smart. He missed Steve. Missed the way Ash was when they first met, when their only thought had been the next mission. That - and sneaking around without being caught. He shook the memories away. Instead, he nodded tersely to the men surrounding him. His black expression meant they quickly left him alone.
The casket was ready for the krantt who would soon come aboard to bear Grunt away, draped in Urdnot colours of bright, chlorophyll green and ocean blue. A silver Normandy insignia was stitched into it alongside his clan insignia. Goddamnit. Vega removed his cap, ran his hand forward through his salt-and-pepper hair.
You always were a crazy sonofabitch, Grunt.
He smoothed a palm along the side of the casket. He died victorious. A good death. Grunt always said he wanted to go out like Shepard. He got his wish in the end. Vega tried to thrust other thoughts aside. Krogans were not like humans but Vega had stripped Grunt's armour in preparation for this handover. One warrior for another. He had washed Grunt's body. It had been charred and broken; most of the skin on his face was burned away. He died in unimaginable pain.
My fault. My responsibility.
Vega's jaw clenched; his eyes unfocused. The hangar bay disappeared.
But you did some good, cabron. Naya T'Soni's outta that hellhole. Miranda and Jack and Kaidan got out okay. Tali -
He exhaled slowly.
We laid hands on Liara's smokin' hot intel. Now Ash just has to lay hands on Liara.
He hadn't noticed a compact, black-haired woman join him. She snapped to attention as he turned.
"Sorry, Sir. The Captain has requested you report to the bridge, Sir."
A disapproving rumble started in his throat; he clamped it down. Migs Takesada was a veteran of Sword. The man knew Vega intended to stay with Grunt until his krantt arrived, and he knew there was no time to lose. Something definitely smelt off.
He strode behind the officer back toward the elevator, rolling his shoulders. She gave no information, nor made any effort to humour him. A nervous prickle ran down from the base of his neck. They shot from the bowels to the brain of the ship in under a minute, emerging into a cramped area lit only by console displays. The bridge's wraparound viewport was already shuttered tight in anticipation of their imminent jump, but holosensors conjured a ghostly vision of the relay beyond the hull. They were close - no more than a couple thousand klicks away.
Almost at the point of no return.
Vega's discomfort rose. He belonged below decks - not with smartass flyboys on the bridge. He waved away the formalities, called out to Takesada. The captain was a tall, neatly-pressed man with a quiet voice. They could not have been less alike but Vega liked him.
"We have a problem?"
"Could do, Admiral." He gestured to the young drell standing next to him. "Lieutenant Raikou has maintained close contact with CDEM since we cast off from Quilla. Lieutenant, report."
Raikou's nicitating eyelids flickered rapidly. The youth was nervous. "Sir, as you will be aware our jump slot is next. We are scheduled to rendezvous with the Khovod outside relay orbit in ninety minutes. Twenty minutes ago we lost all contact with Aralakh."
An icy grip squeezed Vega's heart. Shit.
"Mechanical issue?" His eyes shifted to the hardware lining almost every surface.
"That is possible, but unlikely, Sir. It certainly is not a problem on our end. Widow, Mactare and Pelion relays all report the same. All communications traffic is down."
"What about actual ships?"
Raikou's voice was burred. His ink-black eyes reflected the glow of the consoles. "Physical traffic is almost non-existent through Aralakh, even in normal circumstances. However, Widow confirmed a Council aid freighter, the Valley Forge, has not arrived as anticipated. No issues detected with the workings of the relays, Sir. It just did not depart."
Thank you, Lieutenant." Raikou bowed slightly toward the Captain and turned back to his station. Migs caught Vega's eye, frowned. His eyes were hard.
"So. The question is not whether we have a problem, but the kind of problem we have, Admiral."
Tension set his legs to concrete where he stood. "Yeah. And whether dropping an Alliance cruiser into the situation would defuse it - or detonate it."
"Indeed." Migs beckoned Vega to take the seat next to his Captain's chair. He sat heavily. Concern was etched into the other man's face, but Takesada was a career man. He was on guard, at heightened alert. But not afraid.
"The Istanbul is straight out of drydock, Admiral. She's battle-ready. But -" at this Migs leaned into Vega - "she's only one ship."
"The CDEM is at full strength. Forty eight ships. We wouldn't be alone out there. Even if some band of crazies did decide to take them on."
"True," Migs replied. He looked away from Vega at the holo-projection of the relay in front of them, lighting the room in neon blue. It was difficult to read his expression, and Vega suspected he was glad of this. "The balance of probability suggests a short term technical problem. Short of sending a scout vessel into a potentially risky situation, we can't know."
They looked at one another for several long moments. Vega spoke first, decisively.
"Better we go, and we go now. That way we have surprise on our side. Wrex is vulnerable while he's aboard that ship. Easy to ambush."
He did not add: and losing him would be a galactic-sized clusterfuck.
Migs nodded crisply. "Aye, Sir." He straightened in his chair and began to bark out orders. The ship shuddered beneath Vega's feet as the drive core engaged, propelling them toward the relay. He swayed as he felt the engines catch and pull.
Matano was massive as they drew closer. Vega watched as consequences to a dozen different scenarios flew through his skull. Another decision made. Another decision Vega knew he was totally unqualified to make. Before, when he had been encouraged to talk this shit out, he had begged to change, and now he knew he never would. He resisted the urge to cross himself. He would spook the crew - those who knew what it meant, anyway. Instead, he prayed helplessly that he wouldn't send the ship and its crew to certain death.
An impassive female voice reverberated through overhead speakers. He balled clammy fists under his thighs to keep from rubbing them down the front of his uniform.
"Relay jump in T-minus five... four... three..."
- Vega squeezed his eyes shut -
Every atom of Vega's body shrank against the flash. For a split second the light poured through to his core, and he was ten years younger, watching another flash as it tore up a whole world.
Then it was gone, and Migs was speaking already. He had unclipped and jumped to his feet in one fluid motion.
"Full stop. Blinds up."
The external shutters retracted back into the hull. As they peeled back, soft blue light from Aralakh's eezo core washed across the bridge. Everything seemed bathed in strong starlight.
The Captain's mouth fell open. Vega continued to fumble with the clasps on his own harness. He looked along Migs' line of sight. His eyes widened.
Holy fucking Jesus.
A swarm of angry ships surrounded the relay. They filled the viewport screen. Vega knew they extended in every direction around the cruiser.
His guts liquefied.
They hung silent and malevolent. There were so many that in places they clustered thick enough to block out the blackness of space around the Neutral Zone.
Dirtside hordes he could handle, but not this. Vega could not remember a force this size since Earth.
He tasted sour terror in his throat.
The peacekeeping ships of the CDEM hung in position with their backs against the relay, heavily armed but outnumbered. Vega spotted the freighter nestled between them. They had circled the wagons. Now they were waiting.
Waiting for what?
Vega's eyes strained over the view in front, breathing shallow. His balls were crushed someplace high in his chest.
What the fuck? How the fuck did this happen?
Vega did not want to think about the possible answers. He couldn't rip his eyes from the standoff.
As he continued to watch, Vega realised he was looking at a rag-tag flotilla of little boats, not an organised fleet. Most didn't look like they could carry crews of more than a dozen. Those that did were dilapidated hulks showing signs of hasty repair. None were new and most were obviously cast-offs. Vega spotted a handful of four-eyed batarian battleships, at least two decommissioned Turian destroyers, and an Asari corvette that had to be at least a hundred years old. All were obsolete. He stopped counting.
That's why they're holding off. We're evenly matched.
With that, his lungs burst open. Dry, recycled cruiser air never tasted so good. Vega schooled his face into the same controlled expression as Migs wore. The only clue to his friend's shared relief was the grateful bob of his larynx.
"Is the Khovod in there?" he asked, voice sounding hollow inside his own head.
Raikou dragged his face back down to his terminal. "Scanning, Sir." A pause. "No. I can push sensors as far as Ruam, but - the Urdnot flagship is not in range, Sir."
Hey, Vega. It's your lucky day. Or maybe not.
He stepped, hesitant, toward the viewport. The Istanbul had looped around, and now he could see both forces ranged against one another. The difference in scale made his blood run cold. The nebula of krogan ships nudged the border of the Neutral Zone as if blocked by a forcefield, but they would not enter.
Migs addressed Raikou again. "Lieutenant, hail the Neith. Get Captain Amarey on vidcom."
The drell's long hands began to fly over the console. Then - froze.
"Captain, I'm - I'm detecting an - object moving toward the relay at high speed - no, course has adjusted. It's heading straight - for us."
"Three-two-zero mark seven-zero. Range," Raikou studied the readings - "Fifty four million kilometers and closing. It's fast. Intercept in three minutes."
The view outside swam purple for a moment before resolving clear again as power diverted from the drive core to the shields.
"Is it a missile, Lieutenant?"
"I cannot tell at this distance. It has also been fired from behind the densest pocket of krogan ships, along the approach to Tuchanka, Sir."
"Whatever it is," Vega breathed, "doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that will punch a hole right through our hull."
"The projectile is unlikely to strike us, Sir. At its current speed, it is more likely to hit a krogan vessel."
Migs was watching the viewport intently, eyes narrowed. He jerked his arm up, pointed.
"Look - there. I can see it."
The object, a single pinprick of light, was streaking closer. At first, its path was straight, a shooting star; then, as it reached the densest thicket of krogan ships, it started to dart and weave between them, fast. Utterly precise. Like a firefly. Vega struggled to keep track of it unaided, but didn't have to strain for long. Raikou switched to a magnified visual.
The object had to be guided by an advanced VI. Sophisticated kit beyond the wildest dreams of most krogan. Excitement and hope pulled his lips apart. Not exactly a smile, but not a frown.
Migs' attention was drawn away from the eezo coloured fireball, toward its surroundings. "Vega, look at the ships. The krogan are training weapons on it."
Clanking external gun turrets and cannons were twisting slowly into position on several of the closest ships. They were packed together so close few dared to loose any shots. The object avoided these effortlessly. It raced closer with powerful grace.
Vega couldn't breathe. At the same time, his instincts yelled at him to protect the thing, stop it being hit. As usual, his mind trailed his subconscious.
Wrex? No. Can't be.
It was close enough now to make out the shape of an object beneath the roaring plasma. Vega could make out a nosecone; a sinuously curved prow. The hairs on the back of his neck rose knowing it was bearing down on them at twenty thousand miles a second. There was no time.
"Hail it, Raikou," he called.
"Wh- ? Yessir." Then - "No response. But we're - incoming message. Patching through."
Vega and Migs scrambled to stand in front of the QEC transceiver disc. A holo of the most enormous krogan Vega had ever seen leapt into life in front of the viewport. More than twelve feet tall. It was obviously the leader of the flotilla. Vega had to stare up.
Bold slashing strokes were carved deep into his headcrest. Decorative. Intimidating. He clenched his muscles behind his back, muscles cording reflexively. The mountain addressed itself direct to him. His voice boomed.
"We have business here." Vega's voice sounded reedy by comparison.
The krogan smiled. Each of his teeth were filed to sharp points. "No, human. You do not."
"Urdnot Wrex demanded our presence."
"It is no longer wanted." The krogan snorted. "He will no longer be demanding anything."
Raikou interrupted. "Admiral, object returning our hail -"
A new voice rang out across the bridge, female. Also krogan.
"- Get me Vega."
Sweat beaded on his brow. He didn't take his eyes off the barbarian in front. He snarled.
"Vega here. State your business."
"Prepare for docking. Now."
His eyes still locked on the hulk. "Give me a reason."
Holo-krogan roared. "Opening that bay will be the last thing you do." To underline his point, every gun turret in range locked onto the Istanbul. Raikou paled.
"I'm with Wrex. Transmitting secure authorisation codes."
Vega's omni lit orange. He glanced, briefly. They checked out.
"Let me aboard."
Her ship shone bright as a little sun, shooting through now through the clear space in the Neutral Zone. Raikou sounded shrill. "Collision in twenty seconds, Sir."
Fuck fuck fuck. Vega was rooted to the spot. He couldn't think.
Migs reacted. Slapping a button on his chair, he addressed the entire ship.
"Crew, max speed in T minus thirty seconds. Open docking bay D for the next twenty six seconds."
The krogan holo disappeared as scores of small ships opened up on the Istanbul.
When it was over, Vega looked at his hands. They were shaking.
She drifted, weightless. Opposites spilled together.
Liara slipped amongst them all, sometimes lucid, sometimes insensate. Neither bore any relation to whether she was conscious. She dreamed lucid and woke asleep.
She felt coolness first, seeping into her cheek. It soothed her skin, which was hot, and cracked. She flexed her neck, very slightly, to press more of her face against it. Wonderful.
She dimly remembered repeating this action later. No. Incorrect. Before, perhaps. This time was different. She became aware of her own shallow breaths, lapping in and out through her mouth. She pressed her lips together. Her lips brushed against the cool.
The cool was floor.
Now she knew she had experienced this before. Was she dreaming? Liara drifted, outside time, until inspiration struck. She sucked in her cool cheek and bit down.
Pain burst into her mouth.
That was significant. She pondered why. Pain meant awake. Awake meant real. Important, but why?
She shut eyes she had not realised hung open. Naya sprang into memory behind her closed lids. She knelt in front of her mother's body, beaming Shepard's smile. Liara's heart burst with joy. She radiated love through the meld, but none was reflected back. Her joy gave way to panic. Her eyes flew wide. Was Naya only a dream?
She refused to accept it. Naya was reality. Her only real thing. She was gone.
Or Liara was. This floor was dirty, and bitter-tasting, and she was seized by the violent conviction that being in contact with it was unbearable. Muscles spasmed and cramped in her arm and leg, jolting her further awake. She rolled with excruciating effort onto her back. Her ankles and wrists were tied. White hot pain glowed in her side, the tell-tell tale burn of a stab wound.
She hissed with pain, silenced abruptly when she heard steps. A shadow fell across her face.
You let her come to, Livy. Stupid bitch.
He drove a steel-capped toe into her side. If it had been the cut side the wound would have reopened. He knew that. As it was she nearly blacked out. She cried out, clung to consciousness like a liferaft.
There's more than one. Remember, she thought, as the faceless man dragged a hood over her head and jammed a hypo into her thigh.