A Beacon in the Dark
Miranda leaned over Joker's shoulder and mentally drowned out the general quarters klaxon that reverberated throughout the Normandy's cockpit and the enitire ship. "Have we got a fix on them?"
EDI's avatar next to the pilot's station pulsed with light. "Negative. We have no direct sensor contact. I have a bearing and an approximate distance based on signal strength and the established signature of the target ship."
"You know who it is then?" Miranda asked.
"Yes," EDI answered. "It is the turian frigate Vellius."
Miranda stood upright. "That's not possible."
Joker looked over his shoulder. "Name one thing that's been impossible lately."
"What've you got?" Shepard's voice sounded strained, punctuated by thuds as always happened when he called for a status report as he ran for the the cockpit.
Miranda sized up the sensor plot in less than a second. "Signal is a hail, Commander. Turian frequency, standard Citadel encryption key, requesting communication. "
"A hail? From who?"
"The Vellius, sir," Miranda sat at her station and pulled EDI's analysis up on her screen. The probability that EDI could be mistaken was just about equal to that of a Citadel ship randomly finding them here. But the comm signal was a perfect match. "Confirmed. This is the same ship that we encountered at the Sahrabarik relay. Range, approximately two hundred ten thousand kilometers."
"The Pollus Maskawa is requesting instructions," Joker said. "Their kinetic barriers just went up. And from the energy output they did not get their shields from the volus."
"Tell them to stand by." Shepard's voice reached them over the intercom at the same time as their ears as he sprinted into the cockpit. "Did they get a return off of us?"
"No, Commander," EDI said. "We have not detected any active emissions from the Vellius other than the hail."
"Maybe they don't know we're here," Joker said as he configured his instrument displays for ship-to-ship engagement. "The Citadel could be sending ships to every system with a relay, maybe trying to flush us out."
Miranda pointed to the blip on the sensor for Shepard to see. "They're directly between us and the Xe Cha relay. That's not a lucky guess."
Shepard leaned against Miranda's chair. The one Council ship he might still consider friendly had crept up undetected in the dark, then flashed a light to get their attention. But how did they know where to look? More importantly, were they alone, or was the rest of their fleet out there waiting with them?
A turian voice came over the speakers, his tone calm and professional. "Normandy, this is Vellius. Please respond."
"Joker, plot a course," Shepard said as he slid into his own chair. "Two-one-six, mark ten. On my go, engage stealth and give me Max-V for five hundred thousand kilometers. Then bring us about for a dogleg back to the relay. And tell the geth ship to get clear."
"Aye, Commander, plotting course two-one-six, mark ten." Joker settled into his seat. "All indicators are green, all stations report ready. Just say the word."
On the bridge of the Vellius, Ensign Tatia shook his head. "No reply."
Rusi glanced up from her panel and looked between her captain and the asari representative. "They've powered up screens spooled up their reactors. They're going to run."
"Damn it," Captain Artuis glared at the inscrutable asari. On the one hand, she wanted to order the ship ready for pursuit. Galactic testimonies aside, hero or villain, Commander Shepard was too important to let slip away. But on the other hand, she was under fleet orders to follow Enlea T'Vari's commands. Yet she still couldn't shake the feeling that whoever was feeding T'Vari orders did not represent the legal authority of the Citadel. "You gave away our position. They'll know you're tracking them now."
"The volus ship is breaking formation," Rusi announced. "The Normandy is assuming a separate heading-"
"Helm," Artuis snapped. "Intercept course on the Normandy."
Enlea's lips tightened to a thin line. Shepard's taking no chances after Dashta, she thought. She had to admit he had good reason. Captain Artuis was right as well. It was only a matter of time before the Normandy crew figured out how they were being tracked. If she lost them now, she'd probably never find them again. Instead of retreating to her seat to prepare for maneuvering, Enlea leaned over Ensign Tatia's shoulder and keyed the transmitter. She only had one card left to play. Maybe her brief time spent on the Normandy might earn her credibility. "Commander Shepard, this is Enlea T'vari. We need to talk immediately. I... have some information that you and your geth friends need to see."
Tatia looked up with shock, while Artuis glared at Enlea for the break in protocol. Enlea saw neither, as she closed her eyes and halted her breathing. The only sound she could hear was the blood coursing by her ears. Please don't run, she willed the human Commander.
"The Normandy is coming to a stop," Rusi said.
"Incoming transmission," Tatia opened the channel. Enlea let out a deep breath.
"Normandy here," said an unmistakably human voice. "This is Commander Shepard. Go ahead, Miss T'Vari."
"I'm coming over," Enlea said and extended her omnitool. She worked its interface and Ensign Tatia's displays flickered, then reset.
"Hey!" Tatia shouted and made a grab for Enlea's arm but she pulled away. The entire cockpit flashed blue as Enlea's skin flared with energy, making the young turian retreat from the shock.
Artuis spun her chair around and stood, her sidearm in hand with Rusi next to her, both aiming their pistols at the asari's head.
"Wait!" Enlea held up her hands, her omnitool still glowing around her left arm.
"What did you do?" Artuis demanded. "Tatia?"
The ensign ran a quick status routine on his console. "We're still online, but there's nothing in the cache. The archive has been wiped clean."
"It's for your own protection," Enlea said with much more calm than a civilian representative staring down the barrels of two pistols should have. "Captain, I know you have no reason to trust me, but believe me the less you know the better."
Artuis' talons clenched around the grip of her Haliat Armory Stiletto. At this range, the highly customized large bore pistol might not be able to take down a shielded biotic, but it would certainly pave the way for successive shots. "Better for who?" she growled.
"For all of us," Enlea said. "You, me, the Normandy."
"Vellius, this is Normandy," Shepard said. "Say again, Enlea. We lost you there for a second."
Artuis kept her eyes locked on Enlea over the sights of her pistol. The events of the past two days made no sense; Normandy's return from Omega Four, the exposure of Normandy exposure trying to aid her, the alien dreadnought's attack on the turian fleet sent to capture the terrorist ship... and their miraculous rescue by the very ship they were hunting. Lorian and T'Vari boarded Normandy at Shepard's invitation with the intent of apprehending him. Two hours later the charges were dropped and the Alliance and Citadel fleets began a massive joint operation beyond Omega Four.
But right when things seemed to be settling down, Fleet Captain Lorian was recalled to the Citadel under arrest. T'vari came aboard with orders placing Vellius at her command. Normandy evaded both fleets and escaped to Erinle, to a worthless, crime-ridden space station that existed only to allow trade outside the view of any law. Dashta Station was nearly destroyed in a firefight allegedly instigated by Shepard, but somehow T'vari knew they were going to be there and when Artuis intended to intervene, she ordered Artuis to halt, albeit with great reluctance.
And now, the asari diplomat, safely out of view of anyone from the Citadel, Thessia or the fleet other than the of the crew of the Vellius now demanded to go back to the Normandy. It was clear that whatever T'Vari wanted to discuss, she didn't want to do it over comms.
Artuis slid next to Tatia's console, still keeping her pistol trained on T'vari. She gave a nod to Tatia to re-open the channel. "This is Captain Artuis, Commander Shepard. With your permission, we'd like to transfer to the Normandy by shuttle."
There was a pause. "Our hangar is standing by. I'm looking forward to meeting you, Captain," Shepard said.
Rusi stared at her captain, jaw agape, mandibles wide. Her XO's shocked expression was second only to Enlea T'Vari's. "Captain... You can't be serious."
Enlea cocked her head at the turians who still held her at gunpoint. Though she did not drop her biotic shield, both her expression and toned softened. "There's no time to lose, Captain. Commander Shepard is waiting for us."
If there was anything Kal'Reegar hated, it was waiting. After Shepard's group retrieved their badly injured, tattooed, bald crew mate, they fell back down the corridor they'd already cleared to link up with Vakarian's group retreating to the ship. During Tali's tour with the original SSV Normandy, Kal had listened to her reports repeatedly and marveled at her tales of working, living, and fighting side by with humans, a turian, an asari and even a krogan. Like many in the fleet, he wondered how much was truth and how much was the romantic embellishment of a girl on pilgrimage, trying to impress potential captains with her exploits so she'd be welcomed into the rosters of the finest ships.
As if Tali needed to embellish. Simply being clan Zorah, the only child of a sitting Admiral at that, she was assured of a prime ship and name. But Tali turned it down, instead striking out on her own after turning away gifts and offers of assistance from many captains trying to curry favor with her father. When she returned, she brought back more information on the geth than all of the top researchers in the fleet, Admiral Zorah included.
So when Kal found himself on the run on a station under siege with a krogan vanguard leading the column, a turian providing cover and tactical command with an asari rear guard who slaughtered any opponents who dared expose themselves with a casual flick of her wrist, all to reach a human ship built and funded by a terrorist organization, he wasn't surprised. After all, minutes before he'd had his rifle commandeered by an excessively polite geth when the battle for Dashta began. As far as he was concerned, that set the tone for the rest of the day.
Now, he was the only person aboard the Normandy without a post. After helping tend the wounded, he volunteered to assist in menial ship-board duties. With minor repair skills learned in the field he knew his way around an omnitool, but before he could get started on any job, he'd find one of the flashlight-heads already doing it. They needed more materials for the fab in the armory? A geth was already dropping off a crate of it when he got there. The decking in CIC needed replacement from where an AP mine went off? A geth was already neatly welding in a replacement tile. Even the human mess sergeant turned him away. The humans, hungry after a day of combat, packed into the galley took their trays and thanked the silent machines that handed them the organic furl they needed to replenish themselves.
So, lacking any other direction, Reegar called the one person on the ship he knew the best over his suit comm. "Anything I can do for you, ma'am?"
Tali sounded weary over the speakers. "Kal? Well, no. Not really. I think we've got pretty much everything under control. Where are you?"
"In the galley with the crew. Trying to find a way to make myself useful."
Tali's giggle made him smile. "You've been trying since I've known you," she said. "Come on down to Engineering. We'll find something for you down here."
"Right away, ma'am," Kal said. "Uh, how do I get to you?"
"Hang on. EDI, would you show Kal how to get to me?"
"Of course, Tali," a female voice came over the channel. It was very authentic sounding, but Kal knew a VI when he heard one. "Mister Reegar, please walk forward from the galley and return to the ship's centerline where you will find the main lift..."
The elevator took Reegar to the fourth deck overlooking the hangar where he followed a line of blue lights in the decking which lead him through the port side access to engineering. When the hatch opened, he could hear the unmistakable drone of one of Normandy's geth vocalizing. "There was no cause for concern. Tali'Zorah dispatched the FENRIS utilizing improvised close-combat techniques with her omnitool."
"Wow," said a brown-haired human female standing with her back to Reegar in front of a complex instrument panel. "Wanted to give it the personal touch, eh, boss?"
"Well," Tali said from somewhere to the left. "Sometimes that's the best way to make sure a mech stays down."
The geth, the one Reegar recognized as Legion with the big hole in its armor, turned in Tali's direction. "You indicated to Shepard-Commander that you had not adequately tracked the thermal status of your weapon."
Tali sounded annoyed. "Okay, Legion, we're just hitting the highlights, remember?"
Reegar was about to announce his presence when the geth spoke again. "Vakarian-Garrus says you periodically have difficulty in this area. Is the heads-up display in your visor need of additional configuration? Ranged targeting mode should include thermal status in the lower-right hand corner..."
"I know what Garrus thinks, thank you, Legion." Tali fell silent for a moment. "Wait. Are you talking to him now?"
There was a lengthy pause from the geth. "Vakarian-Garrus says we should not answer that question. Correction, he now indicates our answer is 'no.' We are not talking to him."
"Goddamnit, Garrus!" Tali shouted.
A voice with a smooth turian lilt drifted over the compartment speakers. "I'm just saying if you'd learn to use something other than a street sweeper you wouldn't have to resort to fixing bayonets every other time we go out..."
"Come down here and I'll show you how useful it can be."
"It's a bad idea to go up against a sniper with a shotgun, Tali."
"Don't you have calibrations or something to do, bosh'tet?" There was the smack of a palm hitting a button followed by a loud click from the speakers. Tali walked slowly into view. Her lovely scarves were tattered and scorched from the firefight and she sported a fresh suit patch across her narrow abdomen. Reegar shook his head and wondered if admiring a woman with field repairs on her suit made him some kind of weird fetishist.
"Legion," Tali said as she approached the geth. "We've discussed this. When the individual we just heard is sticking his flat nose into my affairs, we're supposed to tell him what?"
Legion's head flaps rippled. "To place his fringed cranium up his rectal orifice, pointy end first."
"Exactly," Tali said.
Reegar coughed and stepped into the engineering compartment. "Someone causing you trouble, ma'am?"
"Kal!" Tali said, smiling behind her mask. "What? No trouble. One of my shipmates thinks he's my big brother. I can't take care of myself."
"He's wrong about that," Reegar said. Both the geth and the human now faced him as well. The human wore a broad grin, but the geth just stared at him with its camera eye.
Tali waved him in. "Kal, I'd like you to meet Gabriella Daniels, propulsion engineer."
Gabby stepped forward and shook Kal's hand. "Pleased to meet you. Any friend of the Chief is a friend of ours!"
"Pleasure, ma'am," Kal said, returning the human's handshake with a firm pump and warm smile.
"And you've already met Legion," Tali said, watching her friends with cautious interest. So far, no other quarians had met geth when weapon fire had not factored into the equation.
This time Reegar did not offer his hand. Instead he offered only a respectful nod. "Yes ma'am."
When no further attempt was made by either to interact, Tali decided it was best not to force it. She stepped forward and guided Reegar aft toward the core. "Kal, you have to see this," she said. "When Shepard made me chief engineer, I almost soiled my suit..."
Gabby watched them go, then looked up at the geth. The quarian marine's cold response, as well as Legion's sudden antipathy surprised her. Everybody liked Legion now. But she had to remind herself that wasn't always the case, evenwith Tali... Especially with Tali. "Hey, uh... You two gonna be cool?"
"Creator Kal'Reegar is a trustworthy ally." Legion turned back to its panel. "However, we believe he still has misgivings about cooperation with the geth."
"Yeah, well... He doesn't know you like we do, does he?"
"No. But his response is understandable and within parameters for established creator behavior."
"Don't worry," Gabby said. "He'll come around. They all will. It just takes time, okay? Don't give up hope."
"Thank you," Legion said and sent an update of the encounter to Mobile Platform Two on its isolated channel. As usual, microseconds later, Platform Two's signal process responded with an acknowledgement that Legion's data was received. Without being able to share consensus with the collective, Legion's processes were left to contemplate the probability that Gabriella-Daniels' statement was correct, or incorrect, on their own.
Reegar stared in wonder at the massive sphere which dominated the drive core compartment. It could power a ship ten times the size of the Normandy, he thought. The empty space is what amazed him more. He'd always heard human ships ran with small crews. If the Normandy were ever commandeered by the Flotilla, barracks would fill every deck, providing living space for hundreds. But as they talked in the huge, empty chamber, he heard something he'd experienced only while on the surface of empty quarian colonies decimated by the geth: the echo of his voice.
"And just like that," Tali was saying, "Shepard made me Chief Engineer of the Normandy. A human ship. A Cerberus ship. Sometimes I still can't believe it."
"He couldn't have made a better choice, ma'am," Reegar said, and he meant it. He gripped the rail overlooking the core, his hands next to Tali's.
"Well... enough about the past," Tali said. "Have you heard anything from the Giraf?"
"No ma'am. Shepard's still got the ship on communication blackout."
"I hope they made it back."
"Carn's a solid captain. I'm sure they got clear."
Tali turned around and leaned back against the railing, her arms folded across her chest. Reegar tried to remain focused on the technological wonder of the drive core instead of the organic one standing to his right. It was even harder because of the way that Tali smiled at him.
"So until we can get you back," Tali said, "I hear you're looking for work."
"Yes ma'am. You hiring?"
"Well, I'll need references, of course. Do you know anyone here who will vouch for you?"
The way Tali's posture showed off her impressive curvature was distracting enough, but her relaxed, playful demeanor always made Reegar's suit coolant routine kick up a notch. He could stare into her glowing eyes for days. Ever since they'd met as kids on the Neema, up to their reunion on Haestrom, he always found himself wondering what he would say to her if he ever got her alone. Now, as a decorated veteran with dozens of campaigns and hundreds of battles to his name he found he could barely muster a complete sentence. "Just you, ma'am."
Tali laughed, a sound which played like music in Reegar's ears, deadened from enduring years of concussive blasts. "I'm not sure I'm your best advocate. You forget how well I know you." She didn't know any soldiers more honorable than Kal'Reegar, except maybe Commander Shepard. She started to walk back towards main engineering and waved him along with her. "If nothing else, you can keep me company. Tell me what's going on back at the fleet, with the Board and the Conclave. I don't get much news from home out here."
By the time Tali had taken two steps, they were both running as the general quarters alarm reverberated throughout the ship. Reegar stopped at the corner of the engineering compartment opposite from the geth and human to stay out of the way. Socializing would have to wait.
"Power indicates green," Legion said.
"Propulsion's green, standing by," Gabby said.
Tali shook her head. "Check it again. We've got a drain."
"Shit," the human muttered. "Number three's EMA pump's failed. Priming the backup. Legion, you got anything?"
"Negative, all circuits running at maximum."
Gabby scowled. "Then we got a physical failure somewhere. Backup pump's engaged and registering one-hundred percent."
"We'll take care of it after the alert," Tali said and touched the button on her holo-display confirming to the cockpit that engineering was ready for action.
"Requesting power for maneuvering and kinetic barriers," Gabby said, glancing over at Legion's board. "Looks like we're about to be on the move."
"Look sharp," Tali said. And they waited. Then they waited some more.
"Goddamn it I hate when they do this," Gabby said after a few seconds of inaction.
Lacking a post to attend, Reegar tried to remember thje way back to the ship's armory. He didn't want to, but he surrendered his weapons at Shepard's request. No one aboard the ship, including the geth, were armed, and since Shepard was captain handed them over without question. But he'd be damned if they were going into a battle situation without having a rifle handy, as useless as it might be against another vessel.
EDI's synthesized voice echoed around the ship. "All sections stand by. Maintain readiness. Hangar crew and security detail report to hangar deck and prepare to recover incoming shuttle."
"What the hell?" Gabby asked. "A shuttle? Out here?"
Legion voiced its confusion with a loud, protracted buzz.
"I don't know," Tali muttered and waited a few seconds for Shepard or someone from the cockpit to tell her what was going on. When they didn't, she hit the intercom to ask someone who might. "Incoming shuttle? Do you have a lock? Can you identify it?"
"Turian," Garrus replied. "From the Vellius if I'm reading correctly. No sign of the mothership, but they couldn't have gotten here on their own."
"What are they doing here? Who's on board?" The second Garrus gave no answer instead of an outright denial, Tali knew the turian was holding out on her. "Spill it, Garrus!"
Garrus cleared his throat. "It seems our friendly Council representative Enlea T'Vari is paying us another visit. She says she's got something the Commander and the geth need to see."
"The geth?" Tali's eyes burned a hole through the speaker grille from which Garrus spoke. "What does the Council want with geth? And how do they even know where we are?"
"Don't quote me on that," Garrus said hurriedly. "In fact, I'm not sure you and I have been talking at all, now that I think about it..."
Tali swore in Khelish using words that even made Kal'Reegar blush behind his faceplate. "Did Shepard call them? How long until they dock?"
"Less than five minutes," Garrus said.
"Legion, take over for me," Tali snapped and stomped toward the hatch. What she feared most, more than anything was interference from the Citadel. As far as she was concerned, the plight of her people was as much their fault as the geth. Whereas the machines were simply tying to defend themselves, the Council had deliberately kept the quarians on the verge of extinction since the geth rebellion.
"Now Tali," Garrus said. "Don't do anything foolish. Tali?" But it was too late. His words fell only on human ears and geth audio receptors as both quarians had already left Engineering on their way to the hangar deck.