Outside of the medbay door, Tali paced in a tight circle, careful to keep her distance from the sensor that would make it open. Doctor Chakwas' words echoed in her head. Be direct. Say Ken's name. Be definitive. Don't say he didn't make it, or we lost him. Use the words "Kenneth is dead." If she cries, don't try to stop her. Don't give the details unless she asks, and remember that she won't likely process anything after the word "dead." It all seemed cold and clinical to be so blunt, but the Doctor finished her lecture with one last admonishment. It's not about sparing your feelings by making it easy on you, she said. If you drag it out, it just makes it worse for her. There's no good way to say a loved one is dead.
"Keelah," Tali murmured to keep herself from breaking down. She'd spent many sleepless nights after Haestrom trying to write letters to the families of the marines that died protecting her, and wasn't even able to get past the first line. Now she was going to have to tell one of her favorite people that her best friend had been killed to her face. Garrus offered to do it, as did Shepard and even Miranda, but she refused. Doctor Chakwas tried repeatedly to volunteer, saying it would be better in the long run because if done wrong, the survivor might end up blaming the bearer of the news. As a doctor on a warship, Chakwas sadly had the most practice.
But Tali couldn't let anyone else do it. It wasn't their responsibility. Ken Donnelly was her assistant. They didn't make his repair assignments that morning, fail to check the integrity of the port fuel cells after the crash, or check to see if coolant from the ruptured lines had leaked into the compartment, resulting in a dangerous short. Tali wasn't going to let anyone assume the burden for her this time.
"Legion," said a female voice, human, from around the curved corridor leading to the elevator. "What are you up to?"
Tali looked forward to see Legion's flashlight eye disappear around the same corner. A short, dark skinned human woman walked around and smiled when she saw Tali. It was Malathi Patel, from navigation.
"Malathi," Tali said, switching instantly to her happy voice. "Hi!"
"I think someone's spying on you," Patel said, jerking her thumb over her shoulder. She turned around, able to see the geth even though Tali couldn't and beckoned it forward. "That or we have a peeping tom by the ladies' room. I would have expected that from Grunt. Or Garrus."
Like most of the crew, Malathi's reaction to the sight of the geth skulking around the ship was one of amusement. It never hid outright, and seemed more interested in staying out of the way of the organics than truly hiding. And when caught, as always, it would offer a polite apology and act very contrite until dismissed. This time was no different. It walked into view and looked at the two women before it. "We apologize," Legion said. "We did not intend to disrupt your activities."
"Mmm-hmm," Malathi said. "You shouldn't spy on your friends, Legion."
Tali stepped aside from the sickbay hatch. "No, it's my fault. I'm probably blocking his path to the AI core. I'm sorry Legion. Go ahead."
Malathi looked behind Tali and suddenly realized where they stood. Her tone changed to sincere concern. "Oh- No, I'm sorry... How's Gabby? Have you talked to her yet?"
"No, not yet," Tali replied. Behind Malathi, Legion's head flaps expanded slightly.
Malathi shifted on her legs uncomfortably. "I'm so happy to hear she's going to be okay. Tell her... Tell her I'm sorry for Ken. He was such a good man."
"I will," all of Tali's energy went into keeping up a brave front. If you can't handle this now, she thought, how will you make it in there? "Thank you."
Malathi looked uncertainly between Legion and Tali and gave a small wave. "Well, if there's anything I can do, please let me know."
"I will," Tali said again. She felt a wave of relief as the human excused herself from the hallway and headed back to the forward berth, leaving her alone with Legion. She waved it toward the door. "Come on through. I'm just-"
"You are awaiting Daniels-Gabriella's return to consciousness."
"Yes. She's out of her coma. Just sleeping now. Doctor Chakwas is about to wake her. I don't want her to find out about Ken... when I'm not around."
Legion made no attempt to pass through the door. "We would like to accompany you."
Tali blinked, surprised. What would make a geth want to be around when she delivered the news? Was it curious to see how humans reacted to death? In spite of the grim task in front of her, she wished she had the geth omni interfaced into Legion right at this moment to see what all those programs were thinking. He always seemed so tantalizingly alive. She had to settle for finding out the old-fashioned way. "Why?"
"Human beings, as with many organics, experience a measurable reduction of stress during traumatic events when in close proximity to others whom they regard as friends. Stress has strong negative physiological effects which greatly impede the body's ability to heal. We project our presence will have a positive effect on Daniels-Gabriella's recovery."
"It always helps to see a friendly face," Tali agreed. She cocked her head. "So, are you saying Gabby is your friend?"
Legion's flaps cycled once. "We do not object to this designation."
Once again, Tali was left trying to decide what that statement truly meant. Was it concerned for Gabby's well being because it liked her, or was it able to reference established medical data and utilize it to help repair what it considered to be an important component of the ship?
The machine examined her from head to toe. It walked across the corridor and stood next to her. "You are also experiencing high levels of stress."
Tali took a deep breath. She resented Legion's ability to sense her biometrics from a distance. Geth never had to tell one of their kind that someone wasn't coming back. She sighed and looked at the hatch. Strangely enough, though, she felt quite comforted by its presence. Legion had proven its own theory correct. "I'm not the one we need to worry about. Come on," she said, steeled herself, and walked into the infirmary.
Other than Gabby, all the remaining patients had been released. They walked between the spaces of the empty beds and Doctor Chakwas got up from her chair and followed quietly behind to gather around the last occupied bed in the room. All of Gabby's gauze and medigel had been removed, and the engineer now lay on her back in bed beneath a crisp white sterile sheet. Only her head and shoulders protruded from beneath. Her eyes were closed, her oily hair matted against her scalp from the gel. Her skin still glistened in the light of the medbay, colored a pale pink instead of its normal darker tone. The sheet raised and lowered regularly with each breath, happily without the help of a respirator.
Tali looked up at Legion. It stopped beside Gabby's sleeping form and its camera lens darted minutely in small patterns as it scanned her body.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" Chakwas whispered from the other side of the bed.
Tali nodded, now focused on Gabby's face, thinking how peaceful she looked.
Chakwas gently shook her shoulder. "Gabriella? Gabriella. Can you hear me? It's Doctor Chakwas."
Gabby's heavy breathing stopped and her limbs shifted beneath the bed sheet. Swollen eyelids slit open, revealing dark red blotches in the whites of her eyes. Her pupils turned to points and she squinted, even though the lights in the room were not very bright.
"You've been in an accident," Chakwas' voice was calm and gentle, "and you're in sickbay. But you're going to be fine. You've almost made a complete recovery."
Gabby's eyes focused on the voice, then slowly scanned the room to orient herself. They stopped on Tali, and she managed a weak smile from her chapped lips. Her voice was dry and scratchy. "Hey, boss!"
"Hi!" Tali reached out and put her hand on the sheet on top of Gabby's arm, her voice full of cheer that she did not feel. "How are you feeling?"
"Oh, I feel fine," Gabby slurred, her eyes opening and closing. "I'll be ready to go in just a minute. Don't want you giving my spot to somebody else. Kind of light headed... it's cold in here. Hey, who's that next to you. That Legion?"
"Affirmative. We are gratified that you are functional."
"Thanks, buddy," Gabby grinned, her voice fading out. "Good to see you, too. Guess Ken's not in here, is he? Otherwise I'd be getting all kinds of shit about lying down on the job, wouldn't I? Ken?"
Tali looked toward the wall behind Gabby's bed. All of the strength seemed to leave her legs.
Chakwas leaned over her patient, inspecting her eyes. "What's the last thing you remember, Gabby?"
Gabby's eyes were still closed, but her brow furrowed as she tried to think back. "I was in engineering... monitoring the reactor. Thane was with me, he took over for Ken. We we're bringing the reactor back online so we could get home, and... there was an alert and... everyone was trapped in the drive core..." She gasped, and her respiratory rate increased. She looked up at Tali. "There was an explosion..."
Tali held firm. "It's okay. The ship is okay. We made it out of there. We-" she caught a glance from Chakwas, clearly upset by the use of the term we. "We're back on the other side of Omega Four. We made home."
"Thane was standing right next to me," Gabby raised her head, her eyes full of fear. "Is he okay?"
Chakwas shook her head sadly. "I'm afraid Thane is dead. He died in the explosion."
"Oh my god," Gabby leaned back into the pillow. She took a couple of deep breaths, eyes closed. Suddenly, they squinted even tighter. The one person on the ship who would have been visiting her in the infirmary regardless of what happened, wasn't. Her lips turned white from being clamped together. "Where's Ken?"
Tali instinctively leaned in closer and she reached under the sheet and found Gabby's hand. "Ken's dead," she blurted out the words. She felt Gabby's hand clench around hers. "I'm sorry."
Tears streamed from the corners of Gabby's clenched eyelids, and as her sinuses closed up she opened her mouth to breathe, turning her face into a tortured grimace. "I knew it," the words choked her, and she tried to laugh. "I always knew that dumb sonofabitch would get himself killed. I knew it! He didn't... He didn't cause it did he? Because that's the kind of dumbshit thing he'd do!"
"Donnelly-Kenneth did not cause the explosion," Legion said. "Exposed h-cells came into contact with lithium oxide dust from uncontrolled coolant leakage. An overload from weapon power up resulted in-"
"Legion!" Tali snapped. "It wasn't his fault, Gabby! He didn't cause it. He was fighting the fire. He died saving the ship..."
"NO!" Gabby's cry turned into an anguished wail. Any coherent words she could form were lost in sobs as Tali leaned over the bed, hugging her tightly, repeating "I'm so sorry." On the other side, Doctor Chakwas' covered her mouth and bowed her head. Even though she had been through this over a hundred times in the service as a doctor, it never got easier.
Legion watched and analyzed the exchange as the quarian gently rocked the hysterical human back and forth. All 1,183 of its processes devoted themselves to understanding the problem and formulating how to repair the damage, to solve an equation that had no solution. As much as consensus demanded, it was unable to conceive of a way to help.
"Ah, this is Major Saperstein, 185th Military Intelligence Brigade," the human's picture popped up in the corner of the briefing room's central holo display. "Thank you for taking my question, Professor. This, uh, new relay discovered by the turian frigate. Would your IFF allow a ship to utilize this relay like it can with Omega Four?"
Mordin hovered over the briefing room's presentation console at the head of the table, matching officers in the question queue to appropriate files from his briefing folder as he spoke to the Major. "Untested hypothesis, but a distinct possibility. Reaper IFF most likely grants possessor with unlimited access to relay network. Proximity of relay to Omega Four would explain collector's ability to avoid detection by circumventing commonly used relay network. Relays currently inactive and undiscovered all possibly navigable with proper IFF."
Enlea had already pulled up a galactic relay map on her datapad. Commodore Rehme stood behind her, looking over her shoulder. "Jesus. That's got to be one hundred-fifty, two hundred additional relays."
"One hundred sixty-three, galaxy-wide," Mordin corrected, still manipulating the conference interface. He paused briefly to look up from his console. "That we know of."
"They could go anywhere and we'd never see them coming," Enlea leaned back in her seat and processed that thought. "We couldn't stop them."
Mordin punched up a new attendee on the screen. "Next question comes from Commodore Ravaris..."
Shepard leaned against the wall behind the head of the table, watching and listening in earnest. He had quickly lost track of the dozens of officers from every branch of the service from each allied species, but even as the briefing had come to an end, more kept joining. For over an hour, Mordin had been the center of attention, the main attraction that by word of mouth was becoming the hottest topic on the military networks. Shepard had not been called upon or even named for almost thirty minutes.
And he couldn't be happier about that. It was nice not to be the focal point for once. Better still, the reapers were no longer just a myth to the finest military minds in the Alliance and Citadel Fleet. They were all treating it like it was the end of the world. And the more they analyzed Mordin's data, the more convinced they became of it.
Fleet Captain Lorian, also silent and forgotten for most of the past hour, looked back at Shepard. He finally climbed to his feet and worked his way to where Shepard stood. No one else in the room paid them any attention. "Commander," he said, keeping his voice low. "Is there somewhere where we could talk?"
Shepard eyed the turian curiously. All of the pent up malice and frustration in the man's face and posture were absent, though the pride with which he carried himself was still very evident. Shepard looked once toward Mordin, who like a conductor coordinated both the visual display and the communication network in tandem. The professor was in his element. Shepard nodded his head at the hatch, and stepped through into the corridor with Lorian right behind.
They passed through the vacant lab, and to Lorian's surprise to the CIC. He could not guess where Commander Shepard was leading him. The information center was abuzz with activity, coordinating the ongoing recovery of debris from the collector vessel as well as plotting inactive relays on a giant holographic galaxy map at the center of the chamber. The only human in the CIC who seemed to notice their arrival was the young woman who greeted Lorian's shuttle upon its arrival to the Normandy. She approached Shepard from a podium next to the map as they neared the ship's main lift.
"Commander," Kelly said. "The- you have an urgent call from... a call waiting for you on the QEA."
Shepard held up his hand as he waited for the elevator to arrive. "Tell him I'll return his call as soon as I can. Thank you."
"Aye, sir," Kelly looked a little nervous.
The two men rode in silence to the top deck of the Normandy. When the doors opened, Shepard stepped into the antechamber and opened the hatch to his quarters, then stood aside to let Captain Lorian through. The turian walked in and stopped short when he saw what looked more like a suite from an expensive resort than the deck of a warship. He turned to the Commander, a quizzical look in his eyes.
"The Illusive Man gave me this ship to complete our mission," Shepard explained as he walked past. "The only explanation I can come up with is that it was originally going to be his private yacht, and this was going to be his berth. I think my entire office on the original Normandy would fit in the head here." He walked over to his desk and opened the mini bar underneath. "Drink? Garrus keeps some of his stuff in here. I don't think he'd mind sharing."
Lorian let out a quiet laugh and moved closer to inspect the stock. "Your friend is an accomplished alcoholic."
"You get that way real quick on board this ship," Shepard pulled out a bottle of bourbon and two cocktail glasses.
"I'll take a shot of the Plevian Giler. I'd hate to rob someone of the good stuff."
"Which one is that?" Shepard asked, looking at the different bottles and their unintelligible labels.
"The tall black bottle on the left, with the gold label."
"No, thank you. It's served room temperature."
Shepard picked it up, unscrewed the top and poured the copper liquid into Lorian's glass, careful not to splash. He handed it to the Captain before replacing the lid and the bottle in the cabinet. He did the same with his own glass and the bourbon.
Lorian sniffed his beverage, but did not drink. "You were aboard the original Normandy when it was destroyed, were you not?"
Like Lorian, Shepard didn't draw from his glass. But there was something about just having a drink in one's hand that made people want to talk. "Yes, sir. Had it blown right out from under me. We took two, maybe three hits from the collector ship, all glancing blows because of my helmsman. But it didn't matter. We had maybe thirty seconds before maneuvering gave out, and we were done." He swirled his drink around. "But that was enough time to get at least some of the crew to the escape pods."
Lorian did not need to ask about casualties. For weeks afterward, that was all the news feeds carried. He was no expert at reading humans, but from Shepard's stoic expression, he still carried the burden of his losses. "And what became of you?"
Shepard laughed. "My goddamn pilot wouldn't abandon ship, so I had to crawl through a vacuum to get to the cockpit. I yanked his ass out of his chair and threw him in am escape pod. We took another hit, the ship broke up, and I got spaced. The last thing I remember was going into orbit and watching my O2 spray from a nice set of punctures in my suit. Then I blacked out."
"But you were rescued, obviously."
Shepard shook his head. How could he explain it without further straining credibility? "I don't know what happened after that. The best way to describe it is that I was in a coma. I woke up two years later. I had been declared dead by the Alliance, the Council forgot all about me and when I came back, no one was happy to see me. The reaper that attacked the Citadel became a geth dreadnought, and no one wanted to hear otherwise."
Lorian's mandibles widened slightly. "Except for Cerberus."
"Except for Cerberus," Shepard confirmed. "They're actually the ones who saved me. Turns out they were already planning to recruit me even before the Normandy was destroyed. Which is ironic because I sent at least a hundred of those bastards to their graves. That had to have crossed their minds at some point. I hated everything Cerberus stood for, but they saved me anyway." He took a draw from his glass. "And that's how I came to be working with them. But not for them. That's an important distinction."
Lorian swirled the liquor around in his glass, deep in thought. "Is a criminal act still a crime when it's done for the greater good?" It was half statement, half question. When he glanced up and noticed Shepard's glare, he quickly added, "I phrased that poorly. It was not meant as a judgment. You did what needed to be done, in spite of opposition from those who should be helping you. Myself included. I owe you an apology, Commander. My orders were to apprehend you at all costs. Until today, that was my sole intention."
Shepard leaned against his desk. "I got that feeling when you came aboard. So when the Vellius followed us in to attack the collector ship...?"
"Captain Artuis was acting on her own initiative, against her commander's orders." Lorian set his untouched drink down on the desk. "Another act of... well-intentioned insubordination, if you will. For the greater good. I shudder to imagine what would have happened had she not. May I sit?"
Shepard nodded toward his desk chair.
The tall turian still came up almost to Shepard's shoulders after he sat. The flame in his silver eyes dimmed. "I would have lost my entire fleet if not for her. And you."
"You wouldn't be out here if it weren't for me."
"True. But I can't blame you for that. I was following orders. You, on the other hand... You chose to come back for us."
"It was the right thing to do."
"It was that simple for you?"
Lorian picked up his glass once more and he held it up to examine it in the light. "I appear to have failed in my mission."
Shepard cocked his head. "Depends on how you look at it, doesn't it? When the historians figure out what happened here, they may decide that your decision saved the galaxy."
"That's very magnanimous of you," Lorian sighed. "But there are five hundred twenty-eight people who won't be around to see it."
Shepard watched as Lorian again lapsed into silent contemplation. Even with the fate of all civilization on the line, the political turmoil that was still happening all throughout the galaxy, Lorian's thoughts were of his crew. Before, in the briefing room, Shepard had been prepared to strangle the turian with his bare hands if necessary. Now, he would have gladly bought the man his drink at any bar in known space. "True," he said. "But everyone else will. That's a small price to pay."
The defeated look in Lorian's eyes vanished, replaced with skepticism, then determination. He raised his glass to Shepard's. "To the survivors."
"And their captains."