Scoped and dropped. Garrus didn't need to watch the batarian's body drop to know he'd scored another kill. Without a head, it wasn't going anywhere except down. By the time it hit Dashta's blood-soaked deck, he'd lined up another target.
Another wave of Blood Pack shock troops in converged on the cafe across the promenade below him. Even if they had been better trained and disciplined, the giant krogan in white that greeted them out front would certainly have broken their ranks. It was Grunt's loud bellowing that drew Garrus to the cafe in the first place. Close combat seemed to fill every corridor of Dashta, but when the unmistakable cry of I AM KROGAN reached his ears, he had to find a vantage point. When he poked his scope through the ceiling panel to see what was happening below, he saw the tank-bred warrior wading into the throng of vorcha, alternately snatching them up in his hands and swinging them like clubs into their comrades, or blowing giant holes in them with his Claymore.
But instead of charging blindly into the enemy, Grunt stayed close to the cafe's front entrance, obscured by dull orange flames and thick, oily smoke. Why isn't he moving? Garrus wondered. That's not his style. Then, from one of the windows came a flash, and another. Garrus zoomed in with his scope, which struggled to focus through the fire and smoke. There was no way to identify the individuals taking cover inside, but with Grunt nearby it could only mean one thing.
He'd found the Normandy crew. More astounding, Grunt was on defense, apparently by choice. The krogan continued to sweep the store front clear as the others covered him from the windows. At that point, Garrus snaked the barrel of his Mantis from his murder hole in the ceiling and started laying waste to anyone with a weapon supporting the vorcha charge on his trapped crewmates. If only he had some way to contact them...
Aboard the Vellius, Ensign Tatia's talons scrambled across the console as he tried to make some sense of the confused emissions coming from the space around Erinle. All he could do was give Captain Artuis an exasperated shrug, but she barely paid him any attention. Instead, she glared silently at the asari Council representative who had come aboard immediately after Fleet Captain Lorian had been relieved of command. With the Evoran towed back to port, the Selelucia recalled home and the rest of her sister ships destroyed by the collector vessel, the Vellius was the only remaining member of Task Force Twenty-One. Everyone aboard the turian frigate assumed that they would be going home with the others. When the relief fleet arrived at Sahrabarik, Vellius was ordered to stay on station. So they stood by and watched their own fleet limp away in shame.
And then Enlea T'vari came aboard with orders from the Citadel that the Vellius was at her disposal. The blue alien was polite like most asari, slightly less condescending, but not very forthcoming with information. When pressed by Artuis about their mission, T'vari would only say her mission was classified.
When the Normandy broke formation and streaked off through the Sahrabarik relay to points unknown, Commodore Ceppalus ordered an immediate pursuit, but Enlea told Artuis to hold. Once again, the crew of the Vellius had to watch as their comrades left them behind and T'vari monitored her omnitool as if it had all the answers. She was obviously receiving transmissions from somewhere, but they were so scrambled Tatia could barely recognize they were happening on his board.
After almost an hour of staring at her omni, T'Vari finally spoke. "Erinle. Make for the relay, please. Stealth approach upon transit."
Artuis looked back at her comms officer. "Tatia, contact fleet operations-"
"Belay that," T'Vari said. "You are operating under my authority. Maintain communications blackout unless otherwise instructed."
Captain Artuis ground her impressively sharp teeth. "Lay in a course," she growled. "Best speed to Erinle."
When the Vellius arrived, they found a situation as chaotic as Sahrabarik with the arrival of the collector ship. The small green and blue jungle world glittered in space. Civilian vessels fled the planet in droves. The Vellius, as ordered, disappeared into the blackness. Erinle itself was controlled by salarians who maintained one of the largest spaceports on its surface in the terminus. All shipping traffic to the bustling port on the planet had ceased, and the planetary defenses were broadcasting in the open that any approaching vessel would be fired upon.
The Vellius bridge crew waited for orders. Captain Artuis, in spite of her turian nature, was not as patient. With the rest of their fleet several systems away and without having told anyone their plans, alone deep in the Terminus, she felt quite vulnerable, especially since the fleeing ships seemed to know something she didn't. "You want to tell me what we're doing here?"
The asari scowled at her omnitool. "Dashta Interchange Station. Where is it?"
"Geostationary orbit," Viska, the helmsman answered, "above the port. There must be one hell of a fight going on over there."
"Sensor, can you give us a picture?" Artuis sat down in her chair as monitors flared to life around her. Her XO slid into the chair behind as once again the Council representative worked furiously at her omnitool.
"Difficult to get a reading, Captain," the sensor officer replied. "Dozens of contacts around Dashta, most of them running... Looks like someone's tapped an Eezo core into their power grid. The whole station's resonating across the spectrum."
T'vari stepped towards Artuis' console. "Can you get a visual of the station? What's docked there?"
"I'll try," came the response from the intercom. Artuis eyed T'vari curiously. The council agent was looking for something specific. Moments later, a tiny dot appeared against the backdrop of Enrinle's lush surface. It magnified and resolved to a top-down view of the station. Only a dozen ships were still docked at the ladder-shaped station at the far end, transports of mixed types and tonnage. In the middle of them all, a black-and-white arrowhead-shaped ship struggled to pull away from its spire.
"Spirits!" Rusi shouted. "That's the Normandy!"
Artuis sat forward. "Tatia! Contact Commodore Ceppalus!"
"Belay that!" T'vari shouted. "You will do nothing without authorization from me, do you understand?" Ignoring the stares now coming from the entire bridge crew, she swept past several pages of information on her omni. "Goddess..."
Artuis gripped her armrest tight enough she felt the tip of her talons crack. "Orders, then?"
"She's being boarded," Rusi pointed to the Normandy's back where the lump of a small shuttle had attached itself. Puffs of gas erupted from its frame. Similar leaks had erupted all over the station, and some docking arms had vented completely. Battle had consumed Dashta, and judging from the ring of ships docked close by, the Cerberus ship was the main target. The XO looked at her captain. She'd seen that look on Artuis' face before she defied Fleet Captain Lorian's orders when the collector ship attacked.
Enlea stared at her omnitool. "Which ship has the exposed core?"
"There's no way we can ID it with all that wild energy," Tatia said.
"Then compare the source location to the visual scan. Is it coming from the Normandy?'
"Negative," the sensor chief replied. "It's from across the station, fourth ship from the end. Looks batarian. Visual match ID's it as a Blue Suns privateer."
Ensign Tatia looked over at his captain and the Council representative as the two stared at one another and Artuis waited for the asari to make a decision. Yellow light pulsed around the hoop surrounding Enlea's left hand. At the same time, Tatia registered yet another heavily encrypted microburst transmission coming from his console. So far he had been unable to work out their point of origin, but the more of them he recorded, the easier it might become.
The asari closed her eyes after reading from her omni. "No action," she said softly.
Artuis whirled her chair around to face her. "We have the most wanted ship in the galaxy in our sights, whose commander prefers to come to the rescue of his hunters. Seems we should be doing something, one way or another."
"No action," Enlea repeated, staring straight at the turian. "Do nothing that will expose our presence here."
Artuis leaned back in her chair. The Vellius had not been directly involved in any of the high level communiques that surrounded the Normandy since its reappearance. The Council rescinded it's orders to capture or kill Shepard shortly after a meeting amongst the highest ranks of the Alliance and turian militaries. Fleet Captian Lorian had been present aboard the Normandy when it happened, as had this asari. The rumor amongst the humans was that was the reason Lorian had been recalled.
But now the same bureaucrat that took part in that meeting stood before her, taking instruction from some unknown source, and ordering her to sit by and watch as the prior target of the greatest fugitive hunt in galactic history was ripped apart before them. She might not be able to go in guns ablaze, but that didn't mean she had to sit by and do nothing. Maybe that's your fatal flaw, Artuis thought, you never could just sit back and watch. "Weapons, target the batarian vessel with Type-29's for indirect approach. Let me know when you have a firing solution. Helm, prepare to shift positions after launch."
The blue in Enlea's face deepened several shades. "All of you, stand down! By direct authority of-"
"Exposing an eezo core while docked is unlawful and an act of terrorism," Artuis explained calmly. Her reasoning was now part of the record for any eventual hearing, but mainly she wanted to give her weapons officer plenty of time to program the attack. "I am obligated under Chapter 33, Section IV, paragraph nine to utilize lethal force to remove the immediate hazard it presents to navigation and communications, as well as protect the station and its inhabitants."
"Wait-" Enlea stammered.
"Captain, I have a firing solution."
"Fire," Artuis said, keeping her eyes locked on the asari. But Enlea only stared back.
"Salvo launched. Time to target eighteen seconds."
Enlea's omnitool glittered to life once more. Enlea lifted it and read it with a blank expression.
"If that's the Council," Artuis leaned back in her chair, "patch them through. I'll terminate the attack and no one will know we're here." Seconds ticked by, and Enlea T'vari said nothing. Her mandibles twitched as she continued to stare the asari down. "But you're not talking to the Council, are you?"
"Impact," Rusi announced in the following silence. "Target destroyed."
Kal Reegar kicked over the body of a fallen asari in Eclipse armor. She and her mates put up stiff resistance at the corridor's junction, but they were no match for a coordinated attack like the one Shepard's squad mounted. He knelt and plucked heat sinks from the merc's combat webbing and chambered one into the Vindicator rifle he'd picked up two junctions back. He glanced over at the blue geth, who stood watch as the team loaded up on heat sinks gathered from the dead. He couldn't tell if he was unsettled at the sight of a geth covering his friends, or was just pissed the same geth was using his personal weapon. One way or another, he was going to get it back.
Shepard chambered a fresh heat sink and poked his head into the main corridor. "All right, four more to go. Everybody ready?" They had advanced almost halfway up the station and each intersection had been a hard-fought battle. Resistance ranged from panicked mobs of freelancers to elite mercenary squads, but the result was always the same. Nothing would stop the Normandy crew on their way back to their ship.
A sharp click in his helmet's headset made him stop. It was followed by a digital squeal, followed by silence.
"The interference has ceased," Legion announced. "Tactical network online."
Shepard's heart pounded as the display in his visor flickered and solidified. True to Legion's words, idents and individual tactical situations began to resolve on a schematic of the station. All it showed were the geth and the quarians next to him, but it was a start. Almost immediately, three separate combat drones rocketed up the corridor, searching for targets. "Normandy, do you copy?"
"Read you loud and clear, Commander!" The relief in Joker's voice was palpable. "You okay?"
"We're intact. Ship's status?"
"This is Lawson. We repelled a boarding attempt with minor damage. We had to shoot our way free from the docking clamp but are now free to maneuver."
Shepard sighed with relief. "Good job on shutting down that jamming."
"Wasn't us," Joker said. "It was coming from a batarian ship docked across the station. It just ate a couple missiles out of nowhere. Somebody out there likes us. Or maybe hates them more."
"OK, Normandy, stand by," Shepard switched to the squad net. Around him, Tali, Legion, Blue and Reegar took positions covering up the corridor. Sporadic weapons fire echoed in all direction. "This is Shepard, who's online?" Across the display in his visor, names and positions rendered into being, accompanied by voices Shepard worried he might not ever hear again.
"Vakarian here. I have a visual on Grunt and some of the Cerberus crew."
"Grunt here! We've got wounded. But I got 'em covered! Nothing's getting through!"
Tali, next to Shepard, smiled as she saw the names of her friends blink onto her HUD, each one seemingly giving her a piece of her life back. She listened happily to their transmissions as she covered up the corridor, shotgun at the ready:
"Kasumi here, I'm actually right across from you, Garrus!"
"Ah, didn't see you over there."
"Of course you didn't!"
Garrus sounded like he was asking the thief to pass the salt in the mess hall. "Do me a favor and take out that Eclipse commando down and to your three o'oclock, fifteen meters. She's about to cause trouble for us."
"On it- whoops. She seems to have become airborne. And boy did she not stick the landing. P.S. I found Samara!"
"I'm here," came the Justicar's calm voice. "How can I be of assistance?"
"Massani online. I'm in the next corridor over." Zaeed's feed erupted with fierce gunfire. "Got some business to finish here then I'll work my way back to you."
Shepard let out a long breath of relief. Most of the squad was now gathered around a single intersection close to where the Normandy had been docked. Most of the fighting seemed to be concentrated in that direction. But not everyone was accounted for. "Garrus, round everybody up and get them back to the ship. Normandy, can you find another place to latch on?"
"Resistance will be lightest toward the higher docks." Miranda said. "Looks like we can get into Sixty-Seven. That will put us behind the squad and should give them a clear path for evac."
"Copy," Garrus said. Heavy fire raged in the background. Shepard knew exactly what his friend was about to ask. "Got other plans, Commander?"
"Jack's not responding. We're going to make a sweep."
Miranda broke in on the channel. "She left her comm equipment on the ship, but Kelly's got a lock on her last point of contact. I'm marking it now."
On the map, a white dot appeared in a small shop off the central corridor, two sections up, away from the fighting but further from the rendezvous point. Garrus chimed in once more. "Make it fast, Shepard. That jamming was working both ways. They're going to regroup before long. Want me to head your-"
"Negative. You have your orders."
"Roger that," Garrus paused to take stock of the situation. "Dock sixty-seven's about fifty meters behind us, but we can make it. Kasumi, slide over and cover Zaeed on his way in. Samara, keep advancing directly ahead, you'll run into Grunt and the rest of the crew. See what you can do with the wounded. There's a lot of small arms fire coming from the central corridor, so watch yourselves. Shepard, you and the others be careful. Don't make me come looking for you."
"We'll see you on the ship," Shepard said. "Out." Shepard peered up the deserted hallway. Bodies and debris choked the floor, the air clouded with thin gray haze. He motioned to his companions to follow.
"Who do you think took out the jammer?" Tali asked as they advanced. Behind her, Legion and Reegar kept a careful watch. More rapid-fire weapon fire, followed by a loud explosion, echoed from somewhere to their left.
"Don't know," Shepard kept his eye on the front door of an pawn shop on the left wall. Scorched corpses choked the front entryway, human, vorcha, and evan a krogan, all ripped apart from the inside. The door had been blown off its rails, and the walls nearby were perforated with hundreds of holes. Inside, flickering light fought hard to fight through thickening smoke. Shepard pressed his back next to the opening and called in. "Jack? It's Shepard! Hold your fire!"
He paused to listen while the rest of the squad stood watch nearby. Shepard was about to call out again when he heard a faint, female voice from within.
"Jack? It's Kelly! Can you hear me? If you can't answer, Shepard's almost to you! Hang on, okay? Jack? Come in!"
Shepard stepped slowly inside, rifle at the ready. Everything from chest to head level in the store had been utterly obliterated. Shelves and ruined merchandise were pulverized and scattered on the floor like plastic and metal confetti. He followed the sound of Kelly's voice to the back of the store and walked behind the cashier's station. The comm panel on the counter pulsed with Kelly's words. "Jack! You should be able to see them! They're right on top of you!"
Sitting against the back wall, her chest and abdomen soaked with blood from multiple entry wounds, Jack struggled to reach the comm unit but her arm fell as she slumped over. Shepard caught her as he knelt and he swept the floor clear of broken glass and plastic fragments before rolling her on her back, his omnitool algow. She coughed out a spray of blood onto the floor.
"Tali! Legion! Medgel!" Shepard shouted as he tried to comfort the wounded con. She had taken at least five slugs through her midsection and upper legs. "Don't move, Jack. We got you. You're going to be all right."
Jack couldn't see clearly but she recognized the voice. "Hey," she gurgled. Next to the Commander, she caught a glimpse of lavender, and a fishbowl reflection looking back at her. Tali was there, too, as was Legion, with his bright flashlight eye casting crazy purple swatches across her blurred vision. When she'd called the ship to warn them, she didn't know if she'd gotten through in time or if they'd even understood her. Her entire body relaxed, and Shepard shook her shoulders to try and keep her awake.
But it wasn't shock, Jack knew. The ship had made it, which meant Kelly, Professor Blabbermouth, Joker, EDI and even the cheerleader and her boy-toy might be okay. Shepard, Bucket-Head and her pet geth were here, which meant Bird-brain, Tadpole, Mother Superior, Stickyfingers and the Grumpy Old Man were probably somewhere nearby. She'd fended off wave after wave from the Pack and the Suns behind her little fort, but her energy finally gave out. She'd gotten so used to having pinpoint covering fire from Thane and Garrus, the bazillions of rounds from the likes of Zaeed, Jacob and Shepard, and the pure brute strength of Grunt at her side that she forgot what it was like to fight alone. They didn't even try to come in after her at that point. They just blew the shit out of the place, and her with it. The entire time, all she could think about was whether or not the damn ship got away...
Jack convulsed as a jolt of pain stabbed across her torso. "Fuck all of you. Especially you, Shepard."
"No, fuck you," Shepard tried to smile as he plugged her wounds with synthetic healing gel. Legion and Tali did the same as they crowded around her. "Got bad news for you, Jack. You're coming back to the ship. You hear me? You're coming back. Jack? Stay with us now!""Fuckin' figures," Jack felt consciousness slip away. "I wasn't supposed to care..."