"The collector vessel has disengaged the turians," EDI said. "It is tracking us."
The huge ship continued to rotate around, a yellow glow pouring from the single giant gunport like a spotlight. Joker clenched his fists over his controls. "Yeah, looks they remember us! Here comes the pain!"
"They always did like us best." Shepard scanned pages of sensor data as they flashed by on his screens. This collector ship was vastly different than the cruiser they had encountered before. Still roughly cylindrical, but shorter, squatter and more solidly built. The first one had been a transport, comprised of vast storage chambers, powered throughout to maintain the stasis pods for tens of thousands of captives. With no cargo to sustain, this new type's length was cut by half with a heavily reinforced superstructure and energy output optimized for maneuvering and combat. It was little more than an enormous weapon encased in solid armor... one tough nut to crack.
But the fight could be over in seconds if this ship had the same weakness as its larger cousin. "Fire control, as soon as she comes about, dump everything you've got down her throat!"
"Thanix standing by," Garrus replied. "Tell her to open wide."
"GARDIAN activated," EDI announced and the darkness outside the cockpit rippled with small explosions.
"JESUS CHRIST!" Joker wrenched the Normandy off-axis. Thin pencils of red light blazed all around, converging on where the Normandy used to be as she spiraled away. The scanner glittered with new contacts as more oculus drones converged from all directions. Maintaining the strongest vector along the line of thrust, Joker punched the throttle, hurtling the ship through the drones before they could close. Beyond them, a second wave appeared on the scanners.
Garrus sounded irritated over the intercom. "Target out of main weapon declination range."
"Deal with it!" Shepard shouted. Back on the other end of Omega Four, a handful of the robotic ships chewed the Normandy to pieces in the tight confines of a stellar junkyard. But in open space, they had raw velocity on their side. The Normandy sped past the second wave and rapidly left the orbs behind. But they, too, would soon gain the benefit of unrestricted velocity. As soon as their inertia in the opposite direction was canceled out, they would be back. As long as the oculus were pursuing, a head-on attack against the mother ship would be tricky. Competing for power and heat buildup, GARDIAN could only do so much before the crew would be fending off oculus from inside the hull.
"How many are there?" Miranda asked.
Joker jinked the ship past a straggler. "Twenty, thirty... million! But we're about to have a much bigger problem!"
The collector ship tumbled around to keep the Normandy in its sights, apparently unconcerned about the surviving members of turian fleet. Spinning in a tight orbit, Joker kept the Normandy just in front of the gaping gun port at its bow. "Why the hell doesn't it chase someone else?"
Shepard eyed the turian ships on the display, paralleling the running battle. Either of the cruisers would be able to take the collector down if they hit it in the right place. "EDI, open a channel to the Selelucia!"
"According to my information, Citadel fleet transmission protocols have changed since the split with the Alliance,"
"Good god," Sheppard grunted. "Transmit in the clear! I don't care who hears it!"
"This is Commander Shepard of the Normandy! Target is vulnerable at the bow. It can be destroyed with a coordinated attack from the front. We can provide a diversion to anyone who can provide fire support, or lead the attack ourselves if we have cover. Reply on this frequency..."
Rusi couldn't believe what she was hearing. Maybe the translator was damaged? "They want us to get in front of it?"
Captain Artuis ignored the remark, simultaneously monitoring their progress back to their cruisers and the trajectory of the retreating enemy dreadnought. The thermal buildup in the Vellius from near-constant thrust and weapon fire was finally dying down. Whatever the Normandy had planned, it had single-handedly taken the pressure off of the remnants of the turian task force, giving them time to regroup.
But how long would it last? The dreadnought now tried repeatedly to draw a bead on the tiny Cerberus ship, but each time it fell back to fire, the Normandy agilely darted out of the way. Their pilot is a magician or a madman, she thought as she watched it swoop around the larger ship. But sooner or later, they would find themselves back in the swarm of drones, and be destroyed like the other frigates foolish enough to get too close.
"Orders, Selelucia?" Artuis asked over the fleet net.
"Stand by," came the reply. "We are assessing..."
"Repeating," Shepard's voice cut out with interference as the dreadnought's main gun sizzled to life. "Target is vulnerable at its primary weapon. We can lead it to you but we can't stop! Turian fleet, respond!"
Shepard winced as another brilliant flash filled the cockpit from the collector's ship main gun. Almost instantly, flak-like explosions dotted the sky as the GARDIAN engaged the oculus as they approached. "We're on our own," he said disgustedly.
"Well, that's a shocker!" Joker sounded genuinely bored at the news as he steered the Normandy through another sweeping turn. A low, throbbing groan like the sound of old water pipes filled their ears, and entire deck shuddered, followed by a low buzz from an alarm no one in the cockpit had ever heard.
"Structural overload amidships," EDI announced. "Cutting throttle, reducing off-angle thrust vectors. Be careful, Jeff."
"I know," Joker said through clenched teeth. "Don't break the ship, I got it!"
Shepard's own jaw was tight. Joker was literally flying the ship apart to give the turians time to strike, and the effort was going to waste. He wouldn't allow his crew to go with it. "Joker, get us out of here. EDI, start the jump calculations. Take us back to rendezvous with the Pollus Maskawa."
"Yes, sir!" Joker didn't try to hide his relief.
"What about the turians?" Miranda asked.
Shepard shook his head. What of the turians? If the collector ship continued its attack, they had no chance. Nor did the civilian ships, the mercenaries or anyone else in the entire Sahrabarik system... For over a year, he and the crew of the Normandy had been fighting the collectors and reapers for the survival of the galaxy. No one other than Cerberus offered help. For the first time Shepard didn't care, and felt it was justified. "To hell with them. Joker-"
"Normandy, this is Vellius," a turian's voice burst from the comm. "We are inbound to your position. Awaiting instructions for rendezvous."
"Helm," Artuis called out. "Intercept course., max V. Weapons, all power to GARDIAN."
Rusi eyed her commander with fear. No order had been given to engage. "Captain, the Normandy is our target!"
"For the record," Artuis shouted, "this is my call! You will follow my orders."
"Artuis!" a deep voice boomed over the fleet net. "Return to formation! Acknowledge!"
The repercussions of defying Captian Lorian would be severe but Artuis didn't have time to explain to him or her crew. The task force was in shambles, hundreds of their comrades had been lost, and the dreadnought would have certainly destroyed them all if not for Normandy's timely arrival. It couldn't have been coincidence. The task force blockaded the Sahrabarik relay to try and capture the Cerberus ship. If Shepard's intention was to escape, he could have easily done so in the confusion of the battle.
But the Normandy didn't run. They threw themselves at the dreadnought, talons out, in aid of the very fleet tasked to hunt them down. She silently promised herself that If they survived the next few minutes, she would find out why.
The surface of the collector vessel skimmed underneath the Normandy like a planetoid, flickering in the explosions of oculus falling to her GARDIAN systems. The Vellius's was now under ten thousand kilometers away and closing fast. At that range, it would be easy pickings for the collector's main gun. The turian cruisers remained frustratingly out of range. Why are they only committing a frigate, he wondered?
But he would take what he could get, and it just might be enough. By itself, the Vellius might be able to do some damage with repeated hits, but the collector ship wasn't likely to sit still for that. Normandy's Thanix cannon took out the other collector cruiser with a single shot, but the power drain would mean cutting of the GARDIAN systems keeping the seemingly endless oculus reinforcements at bay.
"Vellius," Shepard said. "We'll keep them busy until you can close in. Then stay on our wing and cover us with your GARDIAN systems while we line up for our run."
"Vellius confirms," came the terse reply.
"Joker, as soon as they're in position, you find us a hole and get in firing position!"
Joker shrugged in his seat. "Sure thing, there's bound to be a gap in the traffic sometime, right? Just make sure their pilot can keep up!"
The geth dreadnought filled the cockpit windows of the Vellius as it spiraled closer and closer to the giant ship, matching relative course and speed. The GARDIAN lasers kept a steady barrage of close-in fire, peppering the sky with bright detonations. Then, from around the dreadnought's curved hull, a four-engined, black and white dagger of light streaked across space, barely a kilometer from the enemy. The Vellius slipped behind and followed. Up close, Artuis noticed that even the Normandy was bigger than her ship.
"We've got visual, Normandy," Artuis transmitted. "Joining formation, echelon right."
"Copy, patching you into our telemetry. Switching all power to forward batteries. Keep them off of us as long as you can and break off when we tell you."
"We've got you, Normandy!"
"Our pilot advises your pilot to keep up. Good luck!"
Her helmsman, a brash young pilot named Viska, shouted over his shoulder from his seat in the nose. "Tell them to stay out of my way!"
Artuis had no time to reply before the Normandy arced up and away from its tight orbit around the dreadnought. Immediately, a dozen swirling beams of red light converged towards it, making contact for fractions of a second before the Vellius' GARDIAN turrets incinerated the drones firing them. On the aft view the dreadnought grew smaller on the screen and began another rapid rotation toward the fleeing ships.
Explosions blossomed around them on all sides as they sped forward, wing abreast. The Normandy twisted lazily through space, either showing off for the turian ship or lining up for a shot, Artuis couldn't tell. Behind, the baleful eye of the dreadnought's main gun took on a hellish glow as it turned toward them. The two small ships were close enough that they could both be vaporized in a single blast.
"Vellius, break away! Break, break!"
From the portside windows of the cockpit, she watched Normandy flip lengthwise, nose to tail, as Viska wrenched the Vellius sideways and kicked her engines to full throttle. Visual scanners kept their lock on both the enemy ship and the Normandy through the wild maneuver. The Cerberus frigate disappeared into the blazing beam from the dreadnought, just as the Lutimarus, Falcarin and Arquelia had done. Her hopes shrunk with the image as they retreated until she saw the Normandy spin on its nose from behind the haze surrounding the beam.
Still pointed straight at the dreadnought, the Normandy pirouetted around the dreadnought's deadly fire as graceful as any dancer around a partner. It's bow sparkled and sent its own solid stream of blue-white fire back into the giant's maw. The dreadnought's "eye" caved in with the force of an asteroid impact at light speed. Inertia carried the molten metal all the way through the length of the hull, sending a liquefied mix of decking, machinery, and anything else in its path crashing through the aft end. The outer hull cracked like an egg, then exploded in fire that rivaled the local star.
"Direct hit," Rusi observed calmly. Turian officers were never supposed to show excitement, but Artuis could tell her XO was on the brink of jumping out of her chair. The rest of the bridge crew seemed to collapse in their seats as the fireball widened on their screens.
"Conn, Sensor, confirming drive core collapse signature and massive eezo detonation."
"Sensor, Conn, aye," Artuis replied. "Any sign of the Normandy?"
"Stand by... She's on the run from those drones, Captain! But she's intact!"
"Helm! Intercept course!" Artuis snapped. "Normandy? Do you read? Turn to one-six-five mark twenty-two, we'll cover you!"
"Vellius, Normandy... On our way! Thanks for your help."
"This is Captain Artuis. My compliments, sir." Artuis leaned forward, her talons in her fringe, as if she had just awakened from a terrible dream. Mopping up the remaining drones pursuing the Normandy should take no time at all. The Cerberus ship didn't even seem to be in any particular hurry to evade the drones - the pilot rolled the ship leisurely and smoothly as it approached, almost daring the orbs to chase him.
A magician, she decided of the Normandy's pilot as the Vellius raced to greet its rescuer.
The Normandy had no protocol against celebration and a round of cheers erupted when the collector ship went up. But the crew knew better than to start the party before the battle was over. In the cockpit, only Joker insisted on making his feelings known.
"That's right," he shouted, guiding the ship away toward the Vellius. "You're oh-for-two, you sons of bitches!"
Shepard smiled but couldn't share the helmsman's cockiness. The Thanix cannon had depleted the ship's energy stores, the battery system was still half dead from the explosion the day before, and the GARDIAN system was still two minutes from coming back on line. Not to mention Joker had to keep maneuvers to a minimum to prevent the Normandy from snapping in two. But fortunately, the Vellius would be in range well beforehand provide them cover from the dozen or so oculus which still pursued them. They had friends after all.
"More like one, one and one," Shepard said, watching the scanners. "This is the first time we haven't exploded or crashed ourselves."
Joker rolled his eyes and sighed. "Thanks for the score update, Commander Buzzkill." But he knew Shepard was right. This was the first encounter with a collector ship where the Normandy had come away clean. Mostly, anyway.
"Commander," Miranda sent a tactical grid to Shepard's console. "We're getting movement out of one of the turian cruisers. They're on an intercept course."
Shepard eyed the display. The turian flagship, Selelucia, was indeed on the move. "Even money says they're coming to arrest us."
"I'm not gonna take that action," Joker said.
"Let's find out. Selelucia, this is the Normandy.".
"This is Fleet Captian Venantus Lorian," responded a turian with a deep, resonant voice. "Representing the Citadel Council and the Turian High Command. You are ordered to stand down and surrender your vessel."Shepard muted his mic. "I hate it when I'm right."