Tug of War
"Nothing," Rusi said, peering into the sensor display. "Not a goddamn thing."
Captain Artuis watched the contact track display project the geth ship's estimated course over and over on one screen. Her own ship's track lagged behind by ten thousand kilometers, as it had for the past half hour. They had lost contact with the giant vessel almost immediately after starting pursuit, and now chased the dark ghost and deeper into the emptiness of space. The intruder could have changed course at any time and they might not see see it. After witnessing the destruction of the Alliance ship earlier, most of the crew probably would be happy to have it stay that way.
Artuis herself began to wonder what there was to be gained by staying on this heading. Without active sensors, they would practically have to run into anything to find it. If the geth vessel was heading to some hidden outpost or station on this track, they had all the coordinate and bearing information necessary in memory. There was no need for them to continue on alone. Without anything further to observe, their best bet was to return to the fleet to share what they had seen, and conduct a search in force.
"Helm, how long to get us back to Sahrabarik Relay?"
"Ahh, twenty six minutes at standard, ma'am. Two minutes at max V."
"Aye, ma'am. Plotting course to Sahrabarik Relay."
"Passive contact, starboard optical array," the sensor officer announced. "Multiple occlusions... just one or two, but definite. Whatever it is, it's big."
"Maintain course," Artuis told the pilot. Coasting as they were, the Vellius was invisible as long as their engines stayed off. "Do not adjust our vector."
"Aye, maintaining course."
Artuis waited. The bearing of the contact changed as the Vellius drifted onward. That meant either the intruder had indeed altered course, or...
"Contact is stationary relative to stellar centerpoint," the sensor operator reported. "We will approach within one thousand kilometers, present course, and overshoot in ninety seconds... mark."
One thousand kilometers... All right, that's further away from the geth ship than when we first saw it, Artuis thought. Do we risk a flyby? Or change course now and hope it doesn't see us? Either way might provoke an attack.
"Maintain heading. Sensor, grab everything you can, we're only going to make one pass. Helm, keep updating our escape trajectory."
Now that they had a primary target, all of the passive sensors and telescopes focused on the dark silhouette in the void. The image slowly resolved on the screen as it underwent enhancement across the entire spectrum. It showed a different object, much larger than the ship they had encountered. It was bulbous, rounded near one end, with long spires that tapered into points on the other.
"Conn, Sensor," the operator called, giving voice to the dawning realization experienced by the bridge crew. "Target is an uncharted mass relay, assigning ID 471 in Sahrabarik system."
"Sensor, Conn. Aye," Artuis replied. As per standard procedure, they logged the relay's location immediately upon discovery. Finding a new relay in an established system was not unheard of... But this one's location far off the plane of the ecliptic at the edge of deep space was extremely unusual. It was not meant to be found. The fact that the geth ship's course lead straight to it filled her with dread. Something was very, very wrong.
"Conn, Engineering! We near a relay? We're getting core resonance down here!"
Artuis clutched her chairs armrests with her talons. The mass effect core of Vellius had been touched by the relay. If only for a second, their cloak of invisibility had been stripped away. Any ships in the area would have seen it. "Helm! Escape trajectory! All ahead emergency!"
Shepard still wore a smile after seeing Legion back on his feet as he waited for the lift to arrive on the engineering deck, but when Jack caught up with him, she had no idea why he was so happy. To her, he looked like his annoying, chipper, upbeat self.
She knew the perfect words to make it stop. "Wait up. We need to talk."
Shepard lowered his head and groaned. "You're not about to piss in my corn flakes, are you?"
Jack stopped in front of him and her expression transformed from its perpetual scowl into the brightest, most insincere smile she could muster. "Good morning, Commander, sir," she said, in the most saccharine tone imaginable. She stood rigidly at attention and snapped a sloppy salute with her left hand. "Crewman Jack requests permission to ask just what the fuck is going on, sir!"
Shepard returned the haphazard salute with a dismissive wave. "About what?"
"What do you think? What are you and the Illusive Man up to?" All frivolity vanished, replaced by suspicion and fear. "We were supposed to be through with him now. Tell me that we're done. You owe me that!"
With a musical ding the lift doors opened, revealing a trio of Cerberus personnel in environment suits on their way up from the hangar deck. They regarded Shepard and the tattooed criminal with complete silence behind their opaque facemasks.
"He'll take the next one," Jack snapped.
"Commander," the tech closest to the door nodded to Shepard and quietly pushed the 'door close' button.
Jack continued to glare at Shepard. "So what's the deal? You're still with Cerberus, aren't you?"
Shepard did his best not to turn away from Jack's accusatory stare. Of all the people on the ship, her history with Cerberus wore the thickest coat of pain, betrayal and suffering. Every minute she spent on the ship had been pure torture... but since Teltin's destruction, she had given the mission her all, in spite of their continued affiliation with her tormentors. What's more, her conduct on the collector base proved there was far more to the girl than she ever wanted to let on. She risked her life, fighting through the base side to side with the rest of them without batting an eye. Their continued partnership after the defeat of the collectors had to be a bitter pill to swallow.
He put his hands on her shoulders. "I'm sorry, Jack. We don't have support from anybody else right now. We can't do this on our own."
"This fuckin' mission," Jack muttered. The only thing keeping her from finally being able to put the past behind for good was the man in front of her. "It'll never be over, will it?"
"Look at me." Shepard shook her shoulders gently until she did. It always amazed him that for someone who had seen the worst of everything, she had the softest, most vulnerable eyes of any woman he'd met. "You're free to do what you want. I'll give you whatever you need to get away. You're absolutely right. I owe you. I just can't pay you back the way you deserve. Not right now. But I will. You have my-"
Jack spun down and away from his grasp and disappeared through the hatch leading back to the engineering sublevel, leaving Shepard alone once again in the hallway.
"...word," He sighed and punched the button for the lift once again.
"Commander," Joker's voice called from the workstation overlooking the hangar deck. The helmsman had no idea of his location, so it was coming over all stations. "You need to get up here. The whole system's going apeshit."
Average elapsed time between crises, Shepard thought, six seconds. He punched the button once more but the elevator was already at the CIC. The urgency in Joker's voice told him he couldn't wait. He sprinted to the access ladder in engineering, cursing the designers who thought it was a good idea to outfit an entire starship with a single lift.
When he got to CIC, Shepard found Garrus and Miranda hovering over Joker's chair, their faces illuminated from below by the cocoon of active displays. Badly modulated audio from several sources squealed over the speakers. Turian voices, ordinarily calm and composed under pressure spoke over one another as they listened.
"...weapon of immense power! We are pulling back! Rendezvous at three-three-two point... We lost the Lutimarus! She's gone! I can't find Vellius! Vellius, come in..."
Miranda's manipulated the holo screen in front of her, re-arranging gain and directional settings on the ships antennas. "We're getting this second hand through traffic control station monitoring the battle."
Shepard looked around, trying to find a display showing the location of the engagement. According to Joker's tactical plot, turian ships were swarming around the Sahrabarik relay. Thankfully, the aggressors didn't appear to be the Alliance. His worst-case scenario had been avoided. "Who the hell are they fighting? Pirates? Mercs?"
"I don't know," Joker shook his head. "But they are getting their asses kicked."
A new voice dominated the channel. "This is the Selelucia. All ships of Task Force Twenty One, fall back to screening positions and we will engage the geth in force."
Miranda and Garrus both turned toward Shepard, who already had his hand cupped over the tranciever in his ear. "Platform Two, we're picking up transmissions of turians engaging a geth ship at the Sahrabarik Relay. You getting anything?"
"Negative, Shepard-Commander," Mobile Platform Two responded. "We are not in contact with any organic entities at present. We are the only geth presence outside the Veil. We do not desire conflict with-"
The geth's exposition faded into the background as Shepard scanned the displays again. "EDI, can you tap in to any of their tactical communications? Get us a visual?"
"Negative, Commander," EDI said. "However there are dozens of civilian ships in the area broadcasting in the open. I will attempt to isolate their signals. Displaying on Jeff's main monitor."
The screen dissolved into blackness as the camera followed a tiny, delta shaped ship tracking across a field of stars. A brilliant white line bisected the screen and the ship disappeared in a halo of bright light. The camera zoomed back, revealing an enormous, mottled vessel in the shape of a clenched fist clasping a giant glowing rod. It soared through space, spinning on its axis to find another target.
"Fuck me!" Joker croaked at the sight of the collector ship. "I thought we killed that bastard!"
Shepard had just enough time to give Garrus a go with his eyes and the turian shot past him to where he would be needed most. "Battle stations! All hands secure for jump, signal CIC when ready!"
Lights dimmed throughout the ship ahead of the echo of the alarm, and the crew dropped whatever they were doing as they scrambled to their fighting positions. Shepard followed Miranda to the first set of seats behind the cockpit.
"That's not the same ship, is it?" Miranda called over her shoulder to Shepard, the image of the vessel still fresh in her mind. Could the Normandy only have wounded it, and it followed them back through?
"Nope," Shepard said and settled in, displays flaring to life around him. Worries about where this new threat originated took a back seat to where it was going, and what it planned to do when it got there. "Joker, get us to the relay, ASAP! Forget the kinetic barriers. All power to propulsion and weapon systems! Garrus, get the Thanix hot as soon as you're in position!"
"Aye, Commander!" Garrus replied.
Joker reached up and twirled his cap around on his head, brim backwards. EDI was already calculating the collector ship's thrust and turn radius based on the incoming feeds. Unlike their last encounter, they were going to be ready for it. "Okay, you son of a bitch, let's see if you blow up as good as your cousin!"
Artuis put out of her mind the fifty lives aboard the Lutimarus as it's sensor trace came to an abrupt halt on the tactical display. There was no need to search for survivors. Like her sister ships Falcarin and Arquelia, the turian frigate disintegrated after a single shot from the geth dreadnaught, just as the Alliance frigate Waterloo had gone before. Simply being in front of the behemoth meant certain death. Assaulting from the flank accomplished nothing, though, as the Vellius' twin mass accelerators pummeled the giant ship to no effect at point blank range before streaking past.
Four of us left, Artuis thought. Two cruisers, two frigates remaining. The tactical plot showed over fifty contacts, mostly civilian traffic scrambling in all directions away from the intruder. It had anticipated their escape plan after their retreat from the uncharted relay, passing the Vellius at her maximum FTL speed to jump to the Sahrabarik Relay. By the time the Vellius emerged from FTL, only seconds had passed... And the Arquelia had already fallen.
The tactical plot showed no good news. For all the might of the pirate and mercenary forces in the area, the Council ships were the only ones stepping up to try and drive off the killer machine. No doubt the criminal elements were just biding their time, waiting to finish off the victor after the battle was decided. The Alliance also had a task force in the area, and foolish as it was, Artuis hoped desperately to see transponders with names like London, Rio de Jeneiro and Valley Forge materialize on the screen. But the turian fleet stood alone.
"Bring us about!" she called out to the helm. She keyed the fleet net. "This is Vellius! Kinetic and DEW fire ineffective at point blank range! Recommend immediate withdrawl!"
"Negative, Vellius," Came the reply. It was Fleet Captain Lorian himself. "We must hold the relay until reinforcements arrive. Maintain proximity. We're vulnerable at range! Close in and maintain fire!"
The cruisers Selelucia and Evoran continued to close at maximum speed, laying a constant spread of accelerator cannon fire in front of them. Raeum, the other remaining frigate, spiraled around the geth ship opposite the Vellius, its main batteries scoring hit after hit with no evident effect.
The gnarled surface of the geth ship blossomed with explosions, shearing huge chunks of ablative armor into space, but every hit revealed only a deeper level of armor to be penetrated. The massive ship twisted and gyrated, making a hit in the same spot twice almost impossible. It's main gun kept firing and firing, drawing from some seemingly inexhaustible power supply and with no consideration for heat buildup, but as Lorian deduced, it could not track at close range where the small, agile frigates could stay out of reach.
"It's ejecting something," Rusi shouted from her station. "On visual!"
Artuis glanced at the picture on her monitor and saw a tiny puff of smoke erupt from the dreadnought's side, leaving a trail of sparkles in the light. The cloud suddenly expanded in all directions. Zooming in, she could see through cloud tiny orbs each with a glowing red circle on one side. Escape pods? Mines?
As she watched, the orbs began to streak away from their mothership. "Incoming missiles! Launch countermeasures! Give us some distance! Relay to all ships, incoming missile fire!"
The cloud kept expanding as more of the spherical objects poured from within the dreadnought's hull. There were dozens of them now, swarming like insects towards the turian ships. A cluster of the spheres swept across the surface of the dreadnought, directly toward the Raeum.
The other frigate's point defense lasers responded immediately as it careened through the swarm, scoring hit after hit on the spheres as it blasted its way through. Instead of detonating, the glowing red circles on the orbs erupted with laser fire of their own, slashing the hull of the Raeum on all sides. Jinking out and away from the geth dreadnought, the frigate exited the swarm, apparently no worse for the wear.
Artuis' relief was short-lived. "GARDIAN ONLINE," displayed her main ship status display. A pack of the orbs now followed the Vellius on its evasive course away from the geth ship, exploding as they came into range of the fleeing frigate's defense system. They may be numerous, but unlike their mother ship, they were not indestructible.
"God, they're inside!" a male voice from their sister ship screamed over the comm channel. "They're boring through the hull! They're inside-" The Raeum pitched over on its side, the gimbals of its engine nacelles pointing crazily in multiple directions. The entire ship flipped end over end casting a pinwheel of sparks before turning into a fusion-charged fireball streaking through space.
The Raeum was gone. Task Force Twenty One now consisted of three warships. Now that the Vellius arced away from the dreadnought with the orbs in pursuit, the giant ship once again turned its attention toward the cruisers. Explosions erupted across the face of the dreadnought as it rotated to track the Evoran, but even the combined firepower of the two cruisers could not alter its course. A steady stream of mass cannon and missile fire from the Evoran toward the geth ship created a near solid line across space between the two vessels.
And then again came that terrible light. The geth superweapon blazed back opposite Evoran's missile trails, impacting the cruiser on its primary hull. Meters of armor melted into space and the great ship shuddered underneath, her engines straining to yaw the ship about to show more armor and prevent burn through. Puffs of gas erupted from beneath buckled plates as seals and bulkheads gave way.
Then, suddenly, the beam skewed wildly away into deep space before flickering out, and the massive ship once again turned rapidly on its axis in a wide, sweeping turn as if it had completely lost interest in the turian ships.
"Conn, Sensor, new contact on our board, on intercept course with the geth!"
Artuis shifted her focus to the tactical display as the GARDIAN continued to hammer away at the pursuing orbs. Whoever it was had captured the attention of the dreadnought. Maybe they would have a chance to regroup and fight this thing. "Is it ours? Reinforcements?""Negative! No IFF! Single vessel, possible frigate... Identified! It's the Normandy!"