The lights in the AI core rose as Tali entered from the medical bay. She had stopped briefly in her quarters to pick up a tool bag, then shared a brief word with Doctor Chakwas to get an update on Gabby. The engineer was still in a coma, but all of her vital signs were strong and continuing to show improvement.
In the core, the standard geth platform had removed Legion from its container and set it on its side on the ledge at the far end of the room. It now stood motionless in the room, again awaiting instruction.
"You can go now," she told it. "Thank you. Resume your duties as designated by Mobile Platform Two."
The geth walked quietly out of the room. She caught a glimpse of Chakwas giving it a cautious glance as it passed through the infirmary. While Legion's entrance was usually met with enthusiastic greeting by the organics on the ship, the crew were still mildly suspicious of its silent cousins. Encounter after encounter, the sight of geth meant an onslaught of mechanical terrors bent on the destruction of any living thing. It took time for everyone to accept Legion's presence on the ship, especially Tali, and before long the Normandy crew learned not to react to geth with blind fear. But there was still a sense that even though all geth were supposed to be the same, Legion was the only one that was really part of the crew.
She shut the hatch and approached the inert robot. "Legion?" She didn't think she'd get a response, but it was worth a try in case the it was only feigning deactivation. She said its name again as she knelt down to inspect it, stopped, and thought how silly she must look. It's not like you're trying to wake him up from a nap. Hovering over it now, she saw herself back in Mordin's lab, the geth's scorched, shattered body sprawled out on the table before her in a pool of white fluid, thankful for its destruction. Now, for the second time, she was going to try to bring it back to life.
As she did then, she produced her custom-made, geth-specialized omnitool from her satchel. Using parts scavenged from destroyed geth, it had the capability to interface directly with the sentient machines, provided they were willing to allow, or unable to prevent the connection. She snaked her hand around Legion's right knee into its chest cavity, feeling for the socket with the lead in her fingers. Had Legion covered or removed it since their last interface?
A soft click made her smile. Evidently, Legion felt the port might continue to be useful, or was at least not threatened by the thought of it being used again. She set the geth omni on the ledge next to Legion and waited for the results. From what she knew of geth, there was a good chance it wasn't completely deactivated.
A progress bar appeared on the screen.
Scanning for active processes...
1 process found.
"There you are," she said aloud. As she'd suspected, Legion had left a single sentinel process alive, set to trigger reactivation under specific circumstances. For most geth she'd encountered, it was a means to slip troopers and armatures past security checkpoints and cargo scans, to be awakened when their positioning systems indicated they were in the correct location to strike - a tactic Legion itself used once to save is crew mates from certain doom on Clobakas. It was that very mission which set the two of them down the path of reconciliation in the first place.
So here we are again, she thought. The trick now was to figure out what conditions had to be met it to reactivate. It might be positional, atmospheric, a network handshake, anything... She might not even be able to access anything at all-
] Trusted connection established. Interface ready.
"Hi there," Tali whispered and smiled. Even isolated from the rest of its intelligence, the individual program recognized her, or at least the omnitool. Tali selected a command from her library of geth routines on the holographic screen.
] Initiate system startup.
System startup process unavailable. Lockout protocol engaged.
Tali scowled, but she wasn't surprised. The sentinel might know who she was, but it was still following the instructions Legion put in place. She scanned through her library for more options.
] Display startup parameters.
Unable to display parameters. Lockout protocol engaged.
She sat back on her haunches and stared at the geth. As long as the sentry program was running, Legion was technically alive, but she had no way to execute commands. The only way she could bypass it would be to power Legion down and try to interrupt its boot process, but there was no telling how it would react upon waking. The one time she attempted such a thing, Legion's defenses saw her direct connection as an intrusion and responded by trying to wipe out all of its programs. Only severe damage to its operating system prevented it from succeeding. This time, fully functional, it might instantly self destruct and she might not be able to stop it.
Besides, Tali thought, it's not fair to him. Just because you want to talk doesn't mean he wants to. It's not right to force him. She paged through her software libraries. The sentinel process was one of the more advanced programs that comprised Legion's consciousness. It might be capable of higher functions. Maybe there was a way to ask permission.
] Request common-language query.
Common-language query engine ready.
She could now type simple commands that the individual VI would parse and interpret on its own. Maybe, if it lacked the authority to act on her request, it would seek consensus.
] Tali'Zorah vas Normandy requests verbal interface with Legion collective.
Activity on the omnitool by the sentinel spiked suddenly. Two more program threads activated, then a dozen, and within seconds, the monitor flooded with activity. The process counter finally leveled off at 1,183. All of Legion's individual programs were back online, but Legion's body did not move. The exposed fiber optics in its chest cavity did not illuminate, and its flashlight-eye remained dark. But all the entities that made up Legion's consciousness were awake once more.
"Legion, can you hear me?" Tali addressed the robot. It did not move or acknowledge her voice, but the geth omni showed a definite increase in processing when she spoke. Still on her haunches in front of the platform, she regarded the geth sadly. "I guess this is as good as it's going to get, isn't it?"
What now? Asking for the startup parameters was pointless since it was entirely up to Legion as to whether or not it wanted to come back online. Besides, now that she could talk to Legion's collective intelligence, maybe it was more a matter of using reason rather than code at this point. "Commander Shepard is sorry for how he reacted when he found out you leaked the comm protocols. He knows the problems with the Council and Alliance aren't your fault. He was out of line for putting the blame on you, and knows you were just trying to help. He wanted to tell you that."
Tali looked the geth and her omnitool over for any reaction. Other than another spike at the sound of her voice, processor utilization stayed close to zero. She stood up and sat on the platform at Legion's feet with a sigh. "But that's not why you shut down, is it?"
Was she just talking to herself? She had no way of knowing if Legion understood. "You know, when I was exiled from the fleet, I didn't know what to do. They abandoned me. For my entire life, the Flotilla came first. Always. I did everything right, did everything for the good of my people and they threw me away. I tried to pretend like it didn't matter, but it did. All I've ever known, all I've ever wanted, was to serve the Fleet."
She shook her head. "If I didn't have the Normandy to fall back on, I... I don't know what I would have done. Exile is the worst thing that can happen to a quarian. Most exiles... don't last very long on the outside. It's not just that we don't have anywhere to go, either. Being cut off from the thing that matters most to you is... well, you know what that's like, don't you?"
She glanced down at the omnitool again to see if Legion's processes were still active, then at the geth itself, but there was still no response from either. "Afterward, I would have done anything, anything, for them to take me back, to forgive me and let me come home. If they gave me the weakest, most decrepit ship in the fleet and told me to take back Rannoch single-handed, I would have tried."
Her voice, soft and weary when describing her expulsion now was filled with quiet resolve. "But do you remember that night Shepard called us to his cabin? When the Admirals ordered me home? That should have made me happy, but it didn't. I didn't care about what they thought anymore at all. What I realized right then, at that exact moment... was that there was nothing more important to me than this ship and this crew. I'm closer to all of you than I ever was with my own family. I couldn't leave all of you, even though they gave me the chance. I won't. I can't."
She stared into space and shook her head. "And I don't have to. The Migrant Fleet is still there, even if I'm no longer a part of it. The thing is, I can do more good for my people here than I could ever do when I was there. I can help them in ways now that I simply couldn't have dreamed of before, and they can't stop me. They didn't exile me, Legion. They set me free."
She glanced back down at Legion's body out of the organic habit of needing to make eye contact. To her surprise, Legion's head was now raised, its glowing eye staring straight at her, waiting on every one of her words. She looked right back into the bright white circle. "You have a choice. What happens can be up to you, from now own. Not the collective. What do you want?"
Legion's facial plates expanded minutely. "We want to stay."
Tali choked back a laugh. After doing all that talking, it was nice to know Legion had actually been listening the whole time. More than that, the consensus Legion had achieved was the same one she did. The Normandy needed both of them. "Then stay," she told it and stood. "And keep trying to help. We need all we can get."
With a flurry of motion in its actuators, Legion's limbs unfurled as it rolled off the ledge and landed on its feet with mechanical precision. Tali smiled as it ran through a series of motive function checks, looking very much like an organic stretching after a long slumber.
When it finished, Tali nodded toward the hatch. "Come on. We've still got a lot of work to do in Engineering."
"Acknowledged," Legion said and followed her out the door, leaving only an empty cargo module lying on its side on the deck of the AI core.
The dim lights of CIC were a perfect compliment for the blackness of space on all the visual scanners, as well as Captain Colia Artuis' own dark mood. As a turian, it was not her place to question the orders of the fleet commander, but that didn't mean she had to like them. Sitting idle, watching the Alliance frigate Waterloo pretend that it could not be seen, as the other ships of turian Task Force Twenty-One continued to sweep the system for the renegade Normandy was a swipe across her white-painted face.
After missing the Normandy and another unknown ship by mere seconds, both the human and turian task forces separated once again to pursue. But for some reason, one Alliance ship lingered, powered down and engaged stealth systems. Immobilized and drifting, it would have been impossible for the turians to detect except that it had stopped all emissions before all the Citadel ships had departed. It makes no sense, she thought. Do the humans think we can't count?
So Fleet Captain Lorian ordered the Vellius to remain behind to ascertain what the humans were up to. Though to Artuis' eyes it was the start a of pointless matching game. Wherever there was an Alliance ship, there would be one Citadel ship. All that would guarantee was that by the time the Normandy was found, their forces would be spread out so thin they could not support one another.
And it wasn't just the Normandy they had to worry about. Every ship in the task force had reported sensor contact with dozens of mercenary and pirate vessels wherever they went. This deep in the Terminus, there was little respect and plenty of hatred for both the Citadel and Alliance. If the Alliance decided to instigate a fight, there was no telling how many other parties would join the fray, potentially destroying both fleets. It was for that reason Artuis ordered her own vessel into an emission controlled state. Sitting alone in ungoverned territory, who knew what faction might come along looking for trouble?
But why would anyone come out here? There was absolutely nothing for millions of kilometers around. "What's your game?" she asked aloud, sitting forward in her chair. Six hours was a long time to sit still and count stars.
"What do I get if can I tell you, ma'am?" asked Ensign Tatia from behind. The young communications officer always liked to pretend to negotiate for information.
"You get to go off duty at the end of your shift," Artuis said, smiling slightly, "instead of going over there to ask them yourself as a favor to your captain."
He bowed his head apologetically. "Ah...Yes ma'am. The Waterloo is here because this was the Normandy's exit point from the other end of Omega Four."
That caused the Captain to turn around in her chair. The other bridge crew similarly looked up from their stations at the news. "That's confirmed?"
"Yes ma'am. Just now. Normandy's been to the other side, and this was their emergence point. I just sent the complete report to your console."
Artuis turned back to her monitors. "That's why we didn't catch them before. We were waiting in the wrong place."
Her XO, Prenna Rusi, a smallish female with similar white tattoos on her face stroked her fringe thoughtfully at her station across from Artuis. "Is that's a function of the Omega Four relay? Or do you think they've figured out how to control drift?"
"Let's hope it's the former," the Captain said. "Or a misjump. If humans have figured out how to direct an exit point, they could go anywhere they like undetected."
"The Alliance ships were waiting with us at the relay as well," the Tatia said. "They were caught off guard, too."
"And still another ship left here with the Normandy," the Rusi said. "There were two jump signatures. Cerberus, perhaps? Maybe their convoy had more ships than we realized and one got through?"
Artuis paused to consider the different scenarios. Nothing was adding up at this point.
"Conn, sensor," a voice spoke from the console. "Inbound transit detected, bearing zero-five-one by zero-two-six, range two-two-five-zero. Its mass effect field is off the scale."
"Battle stations, maintain zero EM profile," the Captain said calmly. They had no word of allied ships returning to the area. It was either an Alliance, Cerberus, or Terminus ship, none of whom she was particularly happy to greet.
"Mother of us all," the sensor operator gasped. "What the hell is that?"
Without magnification or enhancement, the inbound intruder was visible on the main monitor as an inky black circle. Passive low-light enhancement, combined with zoom revealed a colossal ovoid-shaped vessel with all manor of lumps and random protrusions sticking from its surface, with gaps revealing a skeletal framework beneath. Whether this was from damage or by design, Artuis couldn't decide, but the gaping, circular maw at the front of the ship had to be intentional. Somehow, she knew that the gigantic array inside wasn't a hydrogen ram scoop.
And the size? The ship dwarfed even the largest turian dreadnoughts. The huge shape drifted through the blackness like a shark in a nighttime ocean. No one on the ship moved, as if the slightest gesture might cause the behemoth to turn its attention to them.
"Everyone hold," Artuis ordered. "Just let them go by. Sensor, mark your logs, capture everything you can. What's the Waterloo doing?"
"Staying as still as we are." The human ship was even closer to the new arrival, less than one hundred kilometers away.
The XO studied the image of the ship intently. "Have you ever seen anything like this, Captain?"
"Never," Artuis said, mesmerized by the view on her own screens. "Sensor, can you identify the contact?"
"Zero emissions. Not even thermal output from its engines. But the design, ma'am..."
There was an edge in the sensor operator's voice that made the captain's blood run cold. "What is it?"
"The only similar reference in the library is a geth ship reported to have destroyed the Normandy around Alchera. The SSV Normandy, not the SR-2."
Artuis watched the giant ship slide further away. The fact that it had appeared in the area at the same time as the SR-2 could not be coincidence. "Is it the same ship?"
"Negative, ma'am. Roughly the same beam, but one half the length."
"This is the small version, then?" asked Rusi. "That's a relief."
"Conn, Sensor. The contact is accelerating away."
The Captain relaxed in her seat. The SSV Normandy had been one of the most advanced ships of its time, even more so than the Vellius, and it was crushed without putting up a fight. The aggressor was never found. "Can you project a course?"
"If they maintain their present trajectory... they're heading into deep space."
Artuis leaned back, still studying the alien ship. "Let me know when they are out of sensor range. We need to report this. I wonder if this is what our Alliance friends were waiting for?"
"They're supposedly in league with the geth now, right?" Rusi's eyes darted between three glowing screens on the panel before her, trying to take in all the information she could. "But they sure aren't rushing out to greet them."
Artuis had to agree, the Waterloo's posture made no sense, unless the giant ship was a threat. "Sensor, any change?"
"Negative. The Waterloo is just sitting there. The intruder is still proceeding on course, well below sublight. I'm not getting any readout from their propulsion system, though... Stand by-" The sensor officer's voice suddenly sounded tense. "Change in target aspect! They're coming about!"
Captain Artuis' felt her heart jump. Had the Alliance ship contacted the geth, alerting them to the turian's presence? If so, why did they bother maintaining their cloak, instead of joining in the pursuit? The geth dreadnought spun on its axis, bringing the black circle at its fore end into view.
"All stations, hold!" she shouted. "Helm, plot an evasive course. Pilot's discretion. Wait for my command."
"Aye, Captain, course laid in!"
"The Alliance ship just spooled up it's reactors-" the sensor operator couldn't get the words out before the scanner screens relayed the event. A bloom of EM energy pulsed on the display as the Waterloo's engines came to life and it streaked into the darkness. The giant intruder snapped to the Alliance ship's heading and the light of a burning sun erupted from its fore end. A brilliant yellow beam greater than the width of the Vellius sliced through the black. In the distance, a new star blossomed to life as the beam found its target, forming a perfect incandescent sphere that dissipated as it expanded into nothingness.
The turians looked on their screens with silent dread as the Waterloo's sensor track stopped and faded away. Readouts on the energy beam fired showed power output equal to their entire task force. No surrender had been offered, no quarter given. The Alliance ship's stealth systems were at least on par with the Vellius. What had the Waterloo done to initiate the attack? Or was it just a matter of greater proximity and pure luck the Vellius had not been detected?
"Target changing course..."
Artuis stared at the sensor plot wishing it showed the future instead of the past. As soon as she gave the word, the Vellius would blast away, but having seen what they were up against, she wondered if that might only buy her crew a few more seconds of life before they, too, burned up in a nuclear fireball.
The relief in the sensor officer's voice was evident. "They are turning back to their original course, Captain."
Artuis noticed several of the crew bowing their heads and whispering prayers to themselves. As much as she wanted to join them, someone had to start giving orders. "All stations, continue to hold. Give the geth plenty of space. Prepare a log buoy for deployment after we get underway."
All heads in the CIC turned toward their captain. Would they pursue, or retreat?
She punched up a replay of the geth's pursuit and destruction of the Alliance ship. From turnabout to destruction, the engagement lasted less than twelve seconds. Her thoughts weren't of the lives lost on the Waterloo, or even relief that her own crew was safe - they weren't out of this yet. No, her only concern now was the dark menace skulking its way into the vast emptiness, and what it was looking for out there.
"Parallel course. We need to find out where they're going."