At the captain's station in Normandy's CIC, the only thing that moved faster than Miranda's hands on the holo displays were her eyes as they poured over the screens. Even though the Cerberus network had taken a hit with their recent public exposures, she still had many eyes and ears who did not know to whom they were reporting. Most of her contacts were still alive and well.
Right now, the information she needed most was about what was happening in the system from which they had just escaped. The only notification the turians received that the Normandy was departing was a broadcast from Shepard right as they ran for the relay: "We've got to go check on something. We'll be right back."
The turian commodore was furious, once again trumpeting the call for Shepard's immediate arrest. The human fleet commander, Rehme, remained calm, insisting that the two fleets continue their mission to secure the collector base. But Shepard at least let Rehme know about Normandy's plans to depart, if not her actual destination. The Commodore wasn't happy about it, but did not want to invite another call from Admiral Hackett so he agreed to keep the window open for Normandy's return.
With the both fleets' sensors monitoring Normandy's outbound trajectory, there was no way to mask their destination so they jumped to Tasale. No one would be watching them there, especially since the right people at traffic control had already been compensated to ignore discrepancies in their logs and drag their feet if any inquiries were made. Then, thanks to a successful transponder spoof, the Normandy's last recorded jump from Tasale lead to the Ismar Frontier. In actuality, she doubled back to Osun under the squawk of a commercial tug, a scenario played out by Cerberus ships hundreds of times to avoid prying eyes.
Judging from the flurry of reports now coming in, word was just now getting back from patrols at Ismar indicating no trace of the Cerberus ship. Shepard's plan had worked. Even if the turians redirected to Osun directly, by the time they arrived the Normandy would already be on its way back to Sahrabarik to assist with the collector base. No one would be the wiser that half of her crew was no longer on board.
Miranda pushed through the laughing, smiling throng along the port side hull, past crew and squad alike as they said their goodbyes to one another. Having been tasked with making travel arrangements, Miranda didn't have time for sentimental displays. She found the Commander talking to the ship's primary shuttle pilot, Rolston, near the stairs to the cockpit. She didn't hear what they had been discussing, but whatever it was finished amicably and they concluded with a handshake.
Rolston took a step past Shepard only to stop face to face with Miranda. The pilot was bright red, sweating just a little bit and somewhat flustered, but wore a genuine smile "Oh, pardon me, ma'am."
Miranda clasped her datapad in front of her. "Rolston."
The pilot wiped the sweat from his upper lip and looked uncertainly around then shook his head. "Oh, what the hell," he stepped forward to give the senior operative a warm hug. Shepard watched from behind with an amused expression, unlike the other crew who watched with astonishment as one of their own dared to cross into Miranda's carefully controlled personal space.
The strain in Rolston's voice almost kept him from being able to speak, but he managed to whisper in her ear. "I'm going home to see my girls. They never would have gotten out of New Canton if it weren't for you."
Miranda released one hand from her datapad and patted Rolston lightly on the back as her eyes darted around the ring of faces staring at them. "It was my pleasure. Give them my best when you get home."
"I will," Rolston said, maintaining his grip. "I can't thank you enough for giving me something to go home to."
She put her hand on his shoulder and pushed away gently. "You always went above and beyond for the ship. It was the least we could do. Now go get packed. I have to talk the Commander."
"Aye, ma'am. Thank you."
"Goodbye, Mr. Rolston."
Miranda turned from the pilot to Shepard, who leaned against the center rail with a knowing smirk.
"Commander," she said, her eyes closed. "Please don't."
"I swear, you were almost on the verge of tears there."
Knowing that reacting would only feed the fire, Miranda stared at the center of Shepard's forehead and visualized herself back in her office, getting actual work done.
"I mean, that was an actual moment." Shepard looked at her with doe eyes. "Maybe not a big one, but you gotta walk before you can run, right? You big softie!" When rewarded with a blank stare, he licked his lips and he slipped back into Commander mode. "Okay, what have you got for me?"
Miranda lifted her pad once more. After almost a year together, she'd finally gotten the silly bastard trained. "Departure plan. We have seven crew plus seven contractors scheduled for departure at Dashta. That just leaves one unaccounted for."
Miranda cocked her head. "Who do you think?"
Shepard sighed. "Right."
"Did you talk to her?"
Shepard's smile faded. "I did. Guess what she said. Go ahead."
"Yep," Though Shepard's tone was jovial, Miranda could tell he felt anything but. "But don't worry. I'm pretty sure it was directed at me."
"Don't be too sure. Is she going to file an itinerary?"
"Well, I asked her about that...'"
"Take a wild guess."
"I'm going to have to go with 'fuck off' again."
"You're one smart woman, Miranda. You know that?"
"Typical. Did she at least specify a destination?"
"She sure did."
Miranda prepared to write on her pad.
Shepard looked over Miranda's shoulder and dictated. "'None of my fucking business. Asshole.' You got a column for that? She suggested a destination for me as well, but I don't think I can get there by relay."
"I'm sorry, Shepard," Miranda said, and meant it. Not that he hadn't been able to convince the ex-con from staying aboard, but that he tried so hard to accommodate her and make her feel genuinely welcome on the ship, and all he ever got for his efforts was a steady stream of epithets. Of course, she had her own personal opinion on the matter, but she could tell now wasn't the time to bring them up. She stared at Jack's bald portrait on the datapad's screen. It seemed to sneer back at her. "I'll list her as 'departing' then."
"Good idea," Shepard said and turned to walk up the long corridor to the cockpit. "You do that. Send a copy to my station, please."
"Aye, sir." Miranda watched him go. She knew his attachment to Subject Zero ran deep, but in spite of all of his efforts to reign in the girl's temper, she was as foul-mouthed and disrespectful as when she first joined the crew. But it was wise for Shepard to make the inquiry. If Miranda had been the one to ask, she was sure she would have gotten more than a few obscene remarks. Since their interrupted duel in her office, she and Jack kept a deck apart between missions, just like Shepard ordered. She thought back to Jack's promise to finish their argument after the mission was complete. It was rash and unprofessional, and she knew now it was said in the heat of the moment. But Jack's response that the Cerberus 'cheerleader' was only being kept alive so Jack could kill her herself after the mission... Somehow she knew that threat had no statute of limitations.
She looked back down at her datapad, into Jack's hateful, fiery glare. No doubt Miranda's experience and battle-tested temper would have allowed her to triumph over Jack's considerable biotic talent, but perhaps it was best that their relationship ended with a tap on the 'save' button instead.
On the datapad's screen, Jack's face winked out of existence.
"Colonial Movers," Kelly said into her earpiece in a chipper, upbeat tempo. "We move anywhere. How may I direct your call?"
Colonial Movers... the code words snapped Miranda out of her reverie. It had been months since that ruse had been utilized. It was a false front, a forwarded line to the Normandy that could be called from any phone or terminal in known space. Shepard had requested it from Cerberus as an emergency measure in case any of the squad got separated during a mission so they could arrange a covert pickup. It had only been needed a handful of times and proved useful in each instance. But it always meant trouble. She moved next to Chambers at her console.
Kelly looked confused. "Jack... Where are you? Uh, Shepard's not here. What's going on?"
Miranda's gut tightened. The last person she wanted to hear from again, ever, was calling on the ship's distress line. Of course, she thought, she left all her Cerberus-issued equipment on the ship for fear we would track her. She's probably just now figured out it's going to cost something to get off the station. Miranda was already calculating the amount of money Jack was going to request, followed by the number of times the word 'fuck' was going to come up in the conversation... Or is she calling to arrange a meeting, so they could finish what she'd started in your office?
Kelly turned to her, eyes wide with fear. "She says an attack is imminent."
Suddenly, the second option seemed more likely to Miranda, but if it were, it was a strange way to catch her off guard. She touched a key on the console and fed the conversation to her earpiece. "Jack, this is Lawson. What's going on?"
Instead of caustic bitterness, cutting remarks or insults, there was only sheer, unadulterated panic in Jack's voice. "Get everybody back to the ship right now! It's an ambush! They know we're here! Get everybody back now!"
"Who? Who knows we're here?"
"Blood Pack, Eclipse! Blue Suns! They're all here! It's a fucking trap! They're coming for all of us! They're coming for you in the Normandy! You've got to get them back! Now!"
Miranda closed her eyes. Any other member of the squad she could take at face value, but Jack? When she opened her eyes again, Kelly was staring at her, mouth agape, awaiting instruction. In that instant, Miranda saw them all back on the collector base, Kelly and the rest of the crew trapped in the stasis pods. The screams of the luckless colonists dissolving into grey goo echoed around the chamber. Before Miranda could even react, Jack leaped up to Kelly's pod, bashing and prying it's canopy with electric-blue fists and pulling the Yeoman out just before she suffered the same horrible fate. Then, dropping Kelly to the ground, Jack moved to the next pod and assailed it with equal fury, saving crewman Hawthorne from certain death.
"Issue an emergency recall," Miranda said. "Immediately."
"Aye, ma'am!" Kelly said as her fingers stabbed at her console.
"EDI! Sound general quarters," Miranda held her hand up to her earpiece. "Jack? Jack! Where are you? Jack, do you read?"
Miranda heard only silence. She leaned over to inspect the communication panel to see why as alarms began wailing throughout the ship and the deck below her feet dropped sharply. She instinctively grabbed the communications console to steady herself as a low rumble shook through her entire body, and the ship itself.
"High-energy detonation amidships," EDI announced. "Topside."
"Joker!" Miranda keyed the cockpit's channel. "Blow dock! Get us moving!"
EDI's artificial voice, always artificially calm, continued over the din. "Hull breach, deck one, Commander's quarters."
"Docking clamps not responding!" Joker called back. "We're locked in!"
"Tear a hole in the station if you have to! Get us out of here!" Miranda looked toward the ceiling as if she could see where the ship had been penetrated. All around, previously idle crew scrambled to their action stations. With almost half of the ship's compliment on board the station, Miranda knew that her next order just might be futile. "All hands, prepare to repel boarders!"
Rolston leaned over the counter of the dingy cantina and knocked his empty cup against its faded orange surface. "Excuse me! Can I get a refill? Hello?"
He returned to the two square tables in the room with his shipmates, the only two occupied out of ten in the small dining area. Much like the kitchen, the rest of the restaurant was deserted. He sat back down in between Matthews and Goldstein, who were busy scanning their data pads, much like the other crew as they sat and waited with their bags in the small restaurant. He fished in his bag for his own pad. Nothing helped a layover like electronic entertainment.
"No luck?" Goldstein asked, sipping loudly out of her own empty cup as she scrolled through her pad.
"Nobody's back there," Rolston said. "Maybe it's closing time or something?"
"Maybe. Or service just sucks here."
Rolston looked down at the partially-eaten sandwich on his tray. Most of the alien meat he'd encountered in his travels tasted like chicken. What had been killed, sliced and stuffed between the sliced bread in front of him he could not even begin to place. "There's no way I can finish the rest of this without something to drink."
"So... You're not going to eat that?" rumbled a low voice from overhead.
The pilot glanced up to see Grunt leaning in from the adjacent table where he sat with three other Normandy crew awaiting transfer. Up close, the krogan's teeth looked very sharp.
"Uh, no," Rolston said and leaned back from the table. "All yours." He watched as the sandwich that would have required a human adult to use both hands to hold disappeared in the palm of the big krogan, gulped down in a single bite. He stared down at his empty plate.
Goldstein grinned at him. "Guess you don't need that refill after all, huh?"
"You're welcome, Grunt!" Rolston told the big krogan. The last word left his mouth when he felt his ears pop, and the air around him warped and glittered faintly as his personal kinetic barrier flared to life. He saw his own shocked expression mirrored in the others at his table as they inspected their outstretched arms as their own shields shimmered faintly around them. "What the hell?"
Then every pad, every comm unit and every active omnitool in the group lit up, each conveying an identical message, at the same time energizing their defenses. Emergency Recall.
"Oh shit," Ines Peralta at the next table stood, her omnitool screen blinking furiously on her arm. "All right, you know the drill. Leave it behind. Let's go, let's go!"
As all his human counterparts stood up from the table leaving their bags and other personal effects behind, Grunt leaned over to one side and pounded open the latch on his weapon locker. His Claymore was clamped to his back like always, but he was damned if he was going to leave any of his other favorite weapons behind. Hunched over as he was, he was merely knocked flat on his belly as the front wall the restaurant imploded with the force of a hurricane, sending shrapnel and shipmates flying in equal measure. Amidst the smoke and falling forms of his comrades, Grunt kicked the small table above him away and sat up just as second blast sent him sailing back into the counter where only moments before Rolston tried to get a refill on his drink.
Zaeed slammed the empty shot glass on the counter top and waved the bartender over. "Gimme another," he grunted as the man stared at him from behind the bar.
"Sorry buddy," he said. "I gotta close shop."
The grizzled bounty hunter looked around. He was the only one left at the island in the middle of the corridor. "What do I owe you then?"
"Uh," the bartender stammered. "Nothin'. On the house. For saving the universe and shit, right?"
Zaeed scowled at the man's sudden shift in demeanor but was interrupted by an insistent buzz coming from his body armor. It was his comm unit, still tuned into the Normandy's tactical net. Emergency Recall: Docks unsafe. Attack imminent. Return to ship.
The sudden look of fear in the bar man's eyes was enough to convince him. Zaeed reached out and snagged the heavy, threadbare gray duffel bag from the chair next to him and vaulted over the bar as the air around him exploded with rifle fire and shattered glass. He landed on his back next to the bartender who held his hands over his ears and screamed as a swarm of slugs of all types ripped above them.
Whatever the counter was made of, it provided some cover as the two men huddled close to the ground. But it was not attached to the deck, and each impact made it skitter in closer a centimeter at a time. Zaeed sat upright with his legs outstretched, keeping the narrow passage open. He glanced up with his good eye, noting the impact angles and listening for the reports. Five or six shooters, maybe eight or nine meters out. They were close. Reaching into his duffel bag, he turned his head to look at the bartender, who now lay completely prone on the crusty, slime-ridden floor.
"Hey Massani!" a voice called from the other side, almost inaudible over the reign of fire. "Vido says hello!"
The tendons in Zaeed's neck bulged upon hearing the name and every muscle in his face contorted into a terrible scowl. "I'd keep my goddamn head down if I was you," Zaeed growled to the bartender through clenched teeth as he loaded the under-barrel launcher on his Mattock rifle with as many inferno grenades as it could hold.
Shepard stood in front of the Giraf's docking collar with his hands on his hips and stared as if he could open the hatch with his mind. "What the hell are they doing in there?"
"Formulating consensus, I would think," said Platform Two. It's female khelish tones sounded soothing even through Shepard's translator.
"That's where we could learn a thing or two from you, Blue. Consensus for organics takes forever. Sometimes it comes too late."
"Do not lose hope, Commander Shepard."
Shepard turned to face the geth directly, almost unsure of what he heard. "Hope. Do you actually know what that is?"
"It is choosing to believe in a positive outcome in spite of evidence to the contrary."
Shepard's next question exhilarated and terrified him in equal parts. Was this new model actually capable of acting against evidence, or was it part of its diplomatic programming? "Can you? Hope, that is?"
The blue platform's face plates contracted slightly and there was a noticeable pause before it finally responded. "I am not capable of answering that question at this time."
"Hey Shepard!" Reegar called from further down the corridor, standing next to Tali and Legion in their own conversational circle. "Why's this geth wearing chunks of your old armor?"
Shepard stared at the blue geth's camera, wishing he could crawl inside and see what it was thinking. The excitement he felt earlier faded away. Blue and Legion still had something in common, even if they phrased it differently. "No data available," he shouted back.
"Yeah, that's what Legion said!" Reegar looked to Tali. "So what is that, some kind of inside joke?"
Tali gave Legion a pat on its bulky, ungainly shoulder plate. An insistent whistle sounded in her ear and her HUD lit up before her eyes. She smiled to Kal as she read the incoming message, happy for once to be in on the joke for a change. "Of some kind." Her smile did not last long as the alert became clear. Docks unsafe. Attack imminent. Return to ship.
"Shepard!" Tali shouted. Almost by magic, the shotgun in her leg holster appeared in her hands. Next to her, Legion detached its pulse rifle which caused Reegar to step back involuntarily and produce his own weapon. Tali reached out and shoved his barrel down and away.
"I saw it!" Shepard yelled back, taking several strides toward the main corridor with his hand to his ear. "Normandy, this is Shepard! Do you copy? Normandy, this is Shepard, do you read? Garrus! Jacob! Anybody online?"
Reegar pulled his rifle away from Tali's hand but kept it pointed away from the geth. "What's wrong?"
"Our ship's in trouble," Tali said, never taking her eyes off of Shepard as he continued to try and raise someone on the tactical net.
"I need you to board now,ma'am," Reegar said.
"I have my orders. Get you safely back to the fleet. You need to board the Giraf right now."
Legion buzzed loudly at Reegar's order and stepped between the two quarians.
"You can come too, dammit," the marine yelled. "All of you, even Shepard, if that will get you to come with me. To hell with the brass! But If there's trouble I'm getting you out of here!"
Shepard donned his helmet and the air around him shimmered like a mirage as his barrier charged to full strength. From somewhere down the corridor, the air reverberated with a deep whump, followed by another, then the rapid-fire pops of small arms fire. He shouted over his shoulder as he hefted his rifle and trotted towards the sound of battle. "Go! I'll catch up with you on the Normandy! Get them out of here, Reegar!"
"Ma'am!" Reegar said and tugged Tali's wrist insistently.
Tali watched Shepard's retreating form, unable to speak. Thoughts of he Migrant Fleet, the peace negotiations, the rift between the Alliance and Council... even the possibility of getting her exile overturned fluttered and faded, replaced with thoughts of her friends - her family aboard the Normandy. Of Garrus and Gabby, of the Doctor and Joker, of a ship full aliens that fought for her as hard as she had for any of them... Thoughts of her captain and friend, who now charged headfirst, alone, to save the crew of the ship whose name she now bore.
She gripped her left palm and her omnitool materialized, and two button presses later, a meter-wide sphere of segmented purple light rezzed in next her. She looked back to Legion. The geth had as much to gain or lose in the negotiations as she did. But she didn't have to ask what the mobile platform intended to do - Legion's combat drone had finished charging before her own. "Let's go," she said.
"Acknowledged," Legion replied, and the pair ran at full speed, their combat drones trailing light behind them in the dim corridor.
"Tali! Wait!" Reegar reached after Tali but caught only thin air. "Damn it!" He staggered back as a third energy sphere shot past, blue in color, missed him by mere centimeters. He barely had time to recover when a second object, much more physical in nature, zoomed by.
"Thank you," the blue geth said politely as it snatched the Avenger rifle from the shocked marine's hands and sprinted at a measured gait to catch up with its companions.
"Hey!" was all Reegar could shout. "Shit! Shit!" He whirled around to the Giraf's empty gate, then back to see the blue geth stop at the junction where Tali, Shepard and the other geth had crouched. He could see the Commander gesture with his hands, formulating a plan. One by one, they disappeared around the bend into the main corridor. Tali, shotgun in hand, was the last to go.Reegar glanced one last time towards the Giraf's hatch. How much trouble can I get into, he wondered? Orders are orders. He reached behind his back for the Carniflex pistol mounted there. He re-seated the heat sink, clicked the weapon off safe and charged down the corridor into battle, with only a pistol, five extra sinks and absolutely no idea what the hell was going on.