Ordinarily, the sight of Commander Shepard roaming the corridors of the Normandy wearing nothing but a white t-shirt and boxer shorts would have been the talk of the ship. But as he made his way down to engineering, not a single member of the crew took notice as they were all dressed in some variation of the same outfit. It was the new ship uniform, at least among the humans: shorts, shower shoes and t-shirts, all drenched with sweat, hair matted and disheveled, eyes ringed black from lack of sleep.
The heat in the air would have been enough to keep everyone awake, but as the saying went, it was the humidity that was driving Shepard crazy. Throughout the ship, the ventilation system worked overtime to move the air, but it was just circulating the same steamy mess over their skins providing no relief. Fortunately, the overpowering smell of smoke from fire damage and constant welding in what seemed like every corridor masked the biological odors that emanated from everyone aboard the ship.
It was just one more indignity the crew had to suffer. The Normandy's crash landing on the collector station had destroyed over half the radiator elements in the ship's hull and ruptured the liquid lithium heat exchange system. The coolant held out long enough to allow them to escape from the blast that irradiated the base, but soon after emergency cutoffs left the Normandy crippled and drifting in the vast wastes of the accretion disk the Collectors used as a minefield to protect themselves from intruders. It was bad enough that the ship could not maneuver without effectively roasting its inhabitants like an oven, but even running the reactors at their minimum levels generated more heat than the poor, overworked air conditioning units could handle. So the crew wore as little as modesty allowed and managed the best they could in the miserable conditions.
Maybe that's about to change, Shepard thought as the lift opened to the engineering deck. They were going on fourteen hours without propulsion or air conditioning. Fortunately, there had been no counterattack by collector forces. If enemy ships did come looking for revenge, all the Normandy could do was incinerate itself out of spite.
He paused to look through the window overlooking the hangar where crews in environment suits worked to repair the breaches left by the oculus. The emergency barriers were off to conserve power and the deck depressurized but there was no shortage of volunteers to work on the damaged hull. As cramped and uncomfortable space suits could be, they were at least air conditioned. Arc welders and plasma cutters sparkled in silence in the windows as he continued towards his final destination, down the port stairs to the bottom-most deck of the ship.
The chamber was awash with bright white light from work lamps, revealing in full the grunge and grime of the below-decks maintenance crawlspace. Tools, fabrication equipment and pipe sections formed a technological nest in the compartment surrounding Ken and Gabby, both dressed in full hazmat gear, as they hovered over an open access panel in the floor.
"This doesn't fill me with hope," Shepard said as he glanced down at his plain white T-shirt and then back to the protective suits worn by the engineers. "Uh, should I be wearing one of those?"
Ken shook his head. "No sir, as long as you stay up here you're fine. But you'll probably want to put a mask on. The coolant's solidified and oxidized. You don't wanna get the dust in your lungs."
"Here ya go, sir," Gabby said, handing a respirator from her kit up to the Commander. He slid it over his sweaty scalp, thankful only his face would be covered. He could see sweat dribbling down behind Gabby's face mask. He hoped for her sake, her suit had some kind of cooling capacity.
In spite of her discomfort, Gabby grinned. "Like your shorts, by the way."
Shepard looked down at his boxers. They were bright blue and ringed with snowflakes above a snow-capped mountain range that ran all the way around his hips. "Thanks! Got these on Noveria. I used to think that place was too cold. Now I'm thinking about retiring there."
"Take us with you, sir," Ken said. "Please!"
Soft clanking erupted from the crawlspace. The two suited humans each lowered an arm into the hole, and when they stood they pulled a light gray ghost of a figure from within. Fine powdered soot fell from it in clumps to the ground. It wasn't until a light at the front of its head flashed as it spoke that Shepard realized he was looking at his chief engineer. If not for her voice, he could have almost confused her for Legion.
"Well, we've definitely found the source of the blockage," Tali said and brushed dust from her arms and shoulders. She picked up a can of compressed air and blew her faceplate clean. A cloud of lithium-oxide drifted down to the deck.
"Good. Can you fix it?" Shepard asked.
"Oh! Commander! I didn't know you were here! Um, I think we can reroute the lines, and that should be enough to restore maneuvering. But..." Tali stopped short once she got a look at Shepard in his undergarments and a gas mask. She giggled. "Nice respirator, Shepard."
Shepard stood shoulders wide, his fists on his waist, elbows out in his best heroic pose. "I look awesome. That's an order. Look at you, though. Standing naked in front of your commander like that."
Tali's hand shot to the back of her helmet. Because of the conditions in the ducts, she was without the scarves and wraps she usually wore over her head and around her body, leaving exposed the hoses and tubes that ran the length of her environment suit. "Well, I- it's very cramped down there. And all the coolant's oxidized and flaking off everywhere, and I didn't want to get them dirty so I took them off -"
Shepard shielded his mask with his hand. "Tali, please, cover yourself."
"I- right away, Commander," Tali said and darted across the compartment and picked up the satchel which contained her personal belongings.
"That was a joke, Tali," Shepard laughed.
Tali still held her bag in front of her as she looked at the three humans. Shepard and Ken were both laughing an grinning like idiots. Gabby, however, looked at her with a sympathetic expression.
Shepard saw Tali wasn't laughing and his smile faded as took a step towards her. "Sorry, the heat's making me a little bit punchy. Wear what you need to get the job done. So, where to we stand?"
Tali sighed and jabbed a key on her omnitool and the display shifted to a see-through 3D schematic of the Normandy. "Well, we knew there was damage to the lines on the ventral side fore and aft. But what took the cooling system down was a restriction in the lines just forward of the hangar deck."
"But we didn't take a hit there," Shepard said. "Did we?"
"Not from weapons, no." Tali zoomed the image of the superstructure on the area she had just inspected.
The wireframe representation had a small kink which to Shepard looked like a rendering glitch on the display since the rest of the lines were all clean and straight, but he knew better. "Dammit. Is that what I think it is?"
Tali hated giving bad news. "Compression fractures, structural deformation... She just wasn't designed to take the stress of a belly landing. Had the coolant lines not gotten crimped and the reactor overheated, we might not have known about it at all until we had... Well, it's a damn good thing we found it."
Shepard sighed. "Is the frame broken, or just bent?"
"Bent, from what we can see on the scans. Not by much, either. There's only minor buckling in that section of the hull. But the structural damage is definite."
"We OK to fly like this?" Shepard braced himself for the answer.
Tali nodded. "I think so. Joker put us through some pretty extreme maneuvers to get us away from the collector base and she held. And I had EDI run through some simulations. We can jump, but any high stress combat maneuvers are probably a bad idea until we make repairs. We need to do a complete teardown before we can be sure. There are probably micro fractures all through the spars, and it may not just in this one segment."
"Teardown?" Shepard asked hesitantly.
"Drydock," Tali said.
Shepard closed his eyes. Delays had not been part of his schedule, even though the fact they had all escaped the collector base meant they had the extra time to begin with. "How long?"
Tali thought for a moment. "Ten to twenty days, depending on the extent of damage... and the skill of the Cerberus engineers."
"Buncha bullshit," Gabby said and angrily flipped the lid on a tool chest open.
"What was that?" Shepard asked.
"Sorry sir," Gabby said, facing them. "I didn't mean- I just can't believe we're kicking the Chief off. She knows this ship better than the guys who designed it."
Tali turned toward her but Shepard held up his hand. "They're kicking everybody off for the duration of repairs, not just Tali. Since that includes me, there's not much I can do. The Illusive Man doesn't want the location of his shipyard compromised. At least he's granting all of you leave until repairs are done."
"Buncha bullshit," Gabby repeated and continued to gather her equipment.
"Maybe they could route us to a private shipyard," Ken ventured hopefully as he assisted Gabby with the cleanup. "Or an Alliance dock, even? Someplace out of the way?"
"Not likely," Shepard said. "He's not going to let anyone outside of Cerberus strip his ship to the bone, especially considering the damage we've got. But don't anybody worry about it, all right? I'll make sure everybody who wants to come back gets to come back. I need all of you."
"Yes sir," both of the human technicians responded.
Tali's voice sounded tired. "You two go up and start pulling up the procedures for coolant system repairs. I'll be up in a few minutes."
"Aye, ma'am." Ken and Gabby walked silently up the stairs to the main engineering deck.
Tali leaned against a bulkhead and sighed.
"Sorry about before," Shepard said. He knew Tali was especially susceptible to becoming flustered when teased. "Since we came out on top against the Collectors, and with the heat and all, I'm a little... well, I'm sorry."
Tali waved dismissively. "Oh, it's not that. It's just that it's going to take them weeks to get the repairs done. Maybe longer. They almost need to rebuild the ship. I should really be here."
Shepard leaned against the wall opposite, arms folded across his chest. He knew where this was going. "Nuh-uh. You and Legion have a date and you're not getting out of it this time. You're going home, Tali. Accept it."
Tali looked briefly his way, then back to the floor with a nod. After the past two days of battling their way to the Collector base and then back again, she was too tired to fight. They all were. A forced separation from the ship would do the entire crew good. But no one was sure that once dispersed, that they'd be brought back together again now that the mission was complete. Especially those whose contracts with Cerberus expired with the defeat of the Collectors.
Garrus was going home to see his
family. Thane was going to be with his son on the Citadel. Grunt was going back
to Tuchanka. Kasumi, Jack, Samara and Zaeed were all moving on, wherever their
lives were going to take them. Miranda and Jacob would muster out with the rest
of the human crew.
But none of them mattered as much as the man in front of her. "I don't suppose this means you'd be able to come with me now?" Tali asked hopefully.
Shepard exhaled deeply in his respirator. "As soon as I'm done briefing the Illusive Man, I'm heading straight to the Citadel with Mordin. We've got to make them listen about what's coming. We don't know how much time we have before the reapers show up."
"I know, I just..." Tali cleared her throat. How ridiculous it was that she feared going back to the Migrant Fleet more than making the jump through the Omega Four relay. But that was the truth. After her trial and exile from the flotilla, she almost welcomed death at the hands of the Collectors. Almost. She looked at the human before her; dirty, disheveled, drenched with sweat and wearing a gas mask and boxer shorts decorated with a wintry mountain scene. It was definitely not what the galaxy would imagine of a savior, provided any of them even knew what he had done. But as long as this crazy human was alive, she would follow him. "It's not going to be easy," she finally said.
"Why not? Seems like peace is a no-brainer. And from what Legion's said, the geth just might let you go home."
Tali grunted, then sat down on the floor and leaned against the wall. "Shepard, the admirals had almost six days after your diplomats arrived to get anything done. You ordered Legion and me to be on call to assist in the negotiations. How many times did they contact us?"
"That would be zero," Shepard said. He was disappointed in the lack of communication as well. "But they're waiting for you and Legion to get back. I understand that. This started with the two of you. Having you participate is important."
"No. That's got nothing to do with it. It's fleet politics, nothing more. Don't you see? They're waiting to select a new admiral to the Board."
"Well, I can understand that too. They should have a full roster. That has to take time, right? It's a big decision."
Tali rolled her eyes. "That's the problem. They're deadlocked right now. Xen and Gerrel don't want any part of the negotiations, while Raan and Koris are open to talks. They're squabbling over selecting a replacement for my father so they can sway the decision their way. Instead of talking peace, they're having endless hearings and interviews and all manner of political... what's your word? 'bullshit? And everyone in the Fleet will be thriving on the drama. It makes for great vid ratings. But do you know the real problem?"
That sounds like enough problems as it is, Shepard thought, but he was trying hard not to be negative. "No, what?"
"No one outside of the Admiralty Board knows the peace negotiations even exist." Tali said, her voice quivering with anger. "They've kept it a secret, and your Alliance has agreed to abide by it. None of the captains in the Conclave who will actually select the new Admiral know what's really at stake. They don't know what they're voting for. They think it's all just the standard nonsense that happens any time there's a new appointment."
"Politics as usual, huh?" Shepard ran his hand through his sweaty hair. He looked in vain for a dry spot on his shirt on which to wipe it.
Tali looked down in despair. "Four people shouldn't have that much control over the destiny of our entire species. This should be brought before the entire Conclave, in open talks, for everyone to hear."
Shepard crossed the compartment and sat against the wall next to her. "That's a not a bad idea. Maybe you should be the one to do it."
"Oh right," Tali sighed. "And get myself exiled even more."
"My point exactly. What else can they do to you now?" Shepard smiled. It faded when it wasn't returned. "Tali, listen to me."
Tali turned her head and faced Shepard mask-to-mask. Ordinarily, she welcomed his pep talks and appreciated his efforts to understand quarian politics. But he wasn't quarian. Sometimes, human perspectives just didn't apply.
Shepard's eyes narrowed. "You're not the same kid that needed to be rescued from Fist and his flunkies when we first met back on the Citadel. You've come a hell of a long way. I've faced some of the hardest, toughest situations in the galaxy, but I was never alone. You've been there every step of the way. I know what you can take, and I know what you're capable of. And there is no way any four admirals can stand in the way of this... unless you let them. There's nobody else in the galaxy that your people should listen to right now. Quarian, human or otherwise."
Tali looked away, even though Shepard could not see her blushing behind her mask.
Shepard nudged his shoulder against hers, his voice lowered as if trying to prevent anyone from overhearing. "Hell, you even stand up to me, and I don't take crap from reapers."
Tali laughed and looked back at him, her glowing eyes smiling behind her faceplate.
"You got something else going for you," Shepard smiled back.
"Yeah, what's that?"
"You're friends with him," Shepard pointed to the open access panel in the floor. An elongated metal structure, shaped similarly to Tali's helmet, complete with a glowing white light and coat of dull gray dust, poked up from the hole. "Which means you're friends with all of them. Isn't that right, Legion?"
The geth's camera eye swirled as it looked between Tali and Shepard. "Affirmative, Shepard-Commander."
Shepard patted Tali's thigh as he pushed himself to his feet. "How many admirals can say that, huh?"
Tali looked up at Shepard as he stood, her eyes edged with tears. He had a way of delivering the kindest compliments as the most basic facts. No matter what, talking to him always made her feel better. And no matter what, she could only manage to say the same tired thing. "Thank you..."
Shepard looked at his dust covered hand from where he contacted Tali's suit. He shrugged and wiped it on his shirt. Hopefully it wasn't toxic. "Well, I've got to go give the Illusive Man a status update. You can be damn sure I'll let him know how hard you've been working. Good job, both of you."
"Shepard-Commander," Legion said to acknowledge Shepard's passing. It turned its camera back to Tali, who still slumped against the wall. "You are concerned that the Creator-Admirals will not be able to reach a favorable consensus?"
Tali's eyes fell from the stairway Shepard had just ascended back to the geth's head sticking up from the access panel. Legion could be quite sneaky when it came to eavesdropping. "Were you listening the whole time?"
Legion's head flaps twitched minutely. "We did not wish to interrupt your exchange."
"Let's just say it's not going as well as I hoped," Tali sighed. "I should be more positive. Maybe by the time we get back, they'll have decided what color the ballots will be."
As usual, Legion did not laugh nor comment on the sarcastic remark. Its claws clanked against the edge of the hatch as it pulled itself up from the hole in the deck. Oxidized coolant dust dropped all around it.
Tali cocked her head at the geth. "What about you? Do you think we have a chance?"
Legion's head flaps cycled in unison, one of the clearest indications that Legion was seeking a consensus amongst its internal programs. It walked to stand before her and offered its outstretched hand. Tali grabbed it and pulled herself to her feet. She now looked the geth right in its eye.
"Peace between geth and creators is beneficial for both factions." Legion's aperture widened in front of her face. "We are hopeful."
Hopeful, Tali thought. Was Legion simply conveying odds in a way it knew organics would comprehend, or was there something more it was trying to express? Even for someone as practical and logical as Tali, it was getting harder and harder for her to tell. Either way, she couldn't help but feel the same. There was always hope.
"Come on," she told him, brushing excess soot from Legion's shoulders. "We've got a lot of work to do."
"Nice to see you dressed for the occasion," Miranda said as Shepard entered the briefing room. Unlike the rest of the crew, she still wore her regulation Cerberus uniform, though because of the extreme heat she did allow herself the luxury of pulling her hair back into a ponytail. At first she was against Shepard's relaxation of the dress code, but there was no denying it was hot. Though her hopes that Shepard would at least try to keep up appearances when talking to the Illusive Man vanished with the arrival of his walking winter wonderland.
She had to admit it did a lot for morale that the captain of the ship wasn't lounging about in one of the scarce environment suits while his crew sweltered in the heat. The arctic theme was just a nice touch. Everyone had to comment on it, which was the point. Anything that got the crew's mind off their troubles was a good thing, especially when it was a laugh at the expense of their commander. And, as usual, he thrived on the attention.
Shepard stared at her in disbelief. "How the hell can you not be burning up in that thing?"
"I am," she shrugged. "I just don't let myself show it."
"You're a better woman than I," Shepard said. He pointed to the data pad in her hand. "You got everybody's travel requests?"
"Tali's engineering update?"
"Mordin's notes and logs?"
"How about an ice-cold six pack?"
"Back ordered," Miranda said, fighting back a smile. "But you're first on the list."
"Don't make any promises you can't keep. Hook us up."
The room faded to darkness as the quantum entanglement grid enveloped them and the conference table retracted into the floor. The blackness gave way to the familiar sight of the Illusive Man sitting in his chair with the unnamed red star boiling in the background. His cigarette glowed in the darkness, and ice cubes clanked in his half full rocks glass.
Shepard wondered what comment the Illusive Man would have about his boxer shorts. It was probably the first time such an image had been transmitted over the two-of-a-kind communication device. In spite of all Shepard accomplished, this somehow made him the most proud, but then he was half crazed from heat stroke. Regardless, in his mind it was funny as hell.
"Shepard," the Illusive Man said in his usual, stoic fashion. He didn't blink a glowing eye at what he saw. "I've got news for you."
Shepard resisted the urge to bring up his attire. He could ignore it as long as the Illusive Man could. "I've got some status updates for you as well."
The Illusive Man shook his head. "Later. First, you need to know that your peace negotiations between the geth and the quarians have failed."
Shepard blinked, then looked at Miranda, who returned his gaze with a confused expression. He turned back to the Illusive man and raised his eyebrows. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that talks have broken down between the Migrant Fleet and the geth collective. Don't insult my intelligence by pleading ignorance. We don't have time."
Shepard crossed his arms, his face twisted into a thoughtful expression. No one aboard the ship outside of Tali, Legion or himself knew of the negotiations. Keeping secrets aboard the Cerberus ship was near impossible, but up until this point he thought they'd managed it. He wasn't sure how best to proceed now, but wasn't something he had to ponder long.
"How did I find out?" The Illusive Man answered the unspoken question and tapped his cigarette over an ash tray. "The same way everyone else in Council space did. It's all over the networks. Imagine my surprise when I consulted our intelligence division and discovered that these talks originated with a series of encoded transmissions from one of my own ships."
Shepard's expression was now completely blank. He ignored Miranda's stunned look and instead concentrated on the glowing eyes of the virtual figure seated before him.
The Illusive Man's stare was just as calm and unflinching. He took a deep draw from his cigarette, causing its end to spark brightly. When finally spoke, there was an edge of irritation in his voice. "Your silence is telling, Shepard. You and I have something in common. Neither of us care for surprises."