Tali's feet clanked loudly across the deck as she stormed through the hatch to the main accessway overlooking the hangar. She paused briefly to look through the bay windows, and upon seeing only the Normandy's Kodiak and the Pollus Maskawa's shuttle, turned back around to stomp down the maintenance compartment stairs.
Reegar, following behind, had to stop short to keep from running into her. He turned and hurried down the stairs after. "What's wrong," he asked, "What's going on?"
Tali wanted to tell him, but there was just no time so she just shook her head as she descended. Ever since the Council representative came aboard the Normandy and first saw Legion, Tali had been counting the seconds until she would shove her perky blue nose where it wasn't wanted. Happily, they parted ways before that could happen. Had the attack at Dashta not occurred, she, Legion, Blue and Shepard would be on the Rayya this moment working out a way for the Migrant Fleet to go home. Now, fate and even more rotten luck brought the Citadel agent back into the picture, and Tali was not going to stand for it.
She has something for Shepard and the geth to see, Garrus' words rattled through her head like a malfunctioning coolant pump. What by the gods was the Enlea T'Vari doing back here, if not to try and enforce their decree? How could she have even known where the Normandy was? Did Shepard invite her? After the attack, did he feel they needed help? Or did the geth call her?
When she opened the hatch to the hangar, she found the control compartment empty. Through its windows, the Normandy's forward doors yawned into the blackness of space as it awaited their latest arrival. The lift was stalled on deck three. She began to pace.
Reegar watched her intently. "Talk to me, ma'am. I'm feeling a little lost here."
"A shuttle is about to dock," Tali said, "there's a Citadel agent on board. They know about our negotiations with the geth. We can't let afford to let the Council take this away from us. I won't let them."
Reegar straightened in his suit. "They're coming here? What do you need from me?"
She slowed then stopped, facing the windows once more. In the blackness, a pair of lights blinked into view. The shuttle was less than a minute away. Of all the disappointments she'd had in life, the disasters she'd faced on and off of the Normandy, her struggles being the daughter of Rael'Zorah, her exile, nothing hurt her as much as the idea of Shepard selling out the Fleet to the Citadel.
But it doesn't make any sense, she thought. More than anyone else, even the Admirals and the Conclave, Shepard's been doing everything he could to bring us together. He wants this as bad as you do. He'd never betray us like that. He'd never betray you. How many times has he proven that? Tali took a deep breath. Be calm, now. Think it through. He's got his reasons, even if you don't know what they are. And showing up down here unannounced will only make things worse. Her eyes fell to the control panel on the console in front of her as it operated under EDI's control. The border around the holo screen, along with all other other screens in the compartment glowed red.
We're still at general quarters. She shuddered. And you're not at your station. Who's letting who down here, you selfish, stupid bosh'tet? Those words echoed repeatedly through her head as she pelted full-tilt past the lift to the hatch leading back to the stairs in the maintenance well.
"What the- Ma'am?" Reegar turned as she sped past. Left behind again, was the only thing that crossed his mind as he took off after her.
Enlea T'Vari and Captain Artuis shared no words as their shuttle approached the Normandy. T'vari worked her omnitool in silence, brow furrowed, eyes intent on the words and images that flashed across the display. Artuis simply leaned back in her chair and pondered what she would do when she met the renegade spectre on his own ship. Fleet Captain Lorian had been this exact position, and now he was confined to quarters somewhere on the Citadel. Word around fleet was he'd been relieved of duty pending court martial. Lorian was in custody, Shepard went free, and try as she might, no one would tell Artuis why. The sensor records and data recorders from Vellius were confiscated and the crew ordered not to discuss any aspect of the battle at Sahrabarik. Perhaps, she wondered, that was the reason for Lorian's rapid expulsion. Maybe he kept asking questions.
Go ahead and tell yourself that. That's not why Lorian is facing the fire, and you know it. Artuis shut down that line of thought. Now was not the time for recrimination. She was minutes away from getting some answers... Where the mighty ship that so effortlessly destroyed the task force came from and why it attacked? Why the Council suddenly reversed its stance on capturing the Normandy after T'vari and Lorian went aboard? Then, after receiving orders to stand aside to let the Normandy be destroyed, Enlea T'Vari practically hijacked a shuttle to get back aboard her?
The real question, she though, was whether the answers would be less frightening than the questions.
Enlea examined the faces of Commander Shepard and his executive officer Miranda Lawson as the shuttle hatched opened into Normandy's hangar deck. When she left before, the crew said their goodbyes and wished her well. Salarian, turian, human, even the geth lined up to see her off. The ship's yeoman even hugged her. But what she remembered most was the Justicar, standing tall in her splendid crimson and gold ensemble. Samara didn't say a word, or even approach Enlea, but merely gazed upon her with regal approval. It was a moment unlike anything she'd experienced in a century of diplomatic duty. The disparate collection she found here should have been at each others' throats, but instead they were allies. More than that, they were friends.
What will the Justicar think of you now, she thought. The dour expressions of the pair of humans in front of her showed just how much their opinion of her had changed in the last day. Shepard in particular looked like he was struggling to maintain his composure, while Lawson stared at her with an icy glare.
Enlea took a step forward, but Artuis stepped in front and blocked her path, her hands locked behind her back. "Permission to come aboard?"
Shepard looked surprised. "Permission granted, Captain." As Artuis approached, he extended his hand and smiled slightly. "Forgive the lack of formality. Commander Shepard. Welcome aboard the Normandy."
Artuis took the human's hand and gave it a firm shake. Ordinarily, forgoing ritual would have bothered her greatly, as would being greeted by the commander of a ship out of uniform. Unlike the female in her form-fitting, pristine black-and-white suit, Shepard wore only dark trousers and a black undershirt. His hair was matted in places, his face covered with short hairs that human males grew if left unattended. She gave no comment or any indication of disdain. "Colia Artuis, captain of the Vellius," she said. She looked back toward the shuttle. "I believe you know Miss T'Vari?"
Shepard's smile faded. "Enlea. I believe you, uh, left something here."
Enlea lowered her head apologetically as she descended the ramp while Miranda's eyes followed her the entire time. The human female's hands had been behind her back, but she now brought them forward and clasped them in front of her waist, holding onto the Enlea's datapad. Captain Artuis had been correct. Once the Vellius made its presence known, Shepard and his crew would quickly figure out how they were found. "That really does deserve an explanation..."
"I'd love to hear one," Shepard frowned. "You really put one over on us, didn't you? Gave it to Rehme so he'd give it to me. Loaded it up with intel on us so we'd plug it in. Are we still being tracked?"
Enlea was surprised how much Shepard's accusatory stare bothered her. "Yes. But the feed can only be decrypted by my omnitool. And I've stopped making updates on your position."
"How long ago?" Shepard rubbed his forehead and turned from the group to call the cockpit. "We need to move again. Joker, do you copy?"
"Updates to whom?" Miranda asked.
Enlea pointed to her datapad. "I think our first priority is to make sure that wherever you go, you're no longer followed. The datapad was only the delivery device. We've got some cleanup to do. And Captain Artuis, I strongly suggest that you return to your ship."
Atruis' eyes narrowed. As she suspected, Enlea did not protest her coming along because she needed cooperation to get to the Normandy. "Why?"
"For your own protection," Enlea told the turian. "And for that of your crew."
The turian's fringe spiked and her brow plates converged into a scowl. "What is that supposed to mean?"
Enlea turned to face Artuis. "It means, Captain, you should return to your ship and rejoin your fleet before you learn anything that truly puts you in danger."
"All green on my board," Gabby said and looked over her shoulder at Tali at the central engineering station. "So where are we now, ma'am?"
Tali sighed and punched up a sector scan scan on a secondary display. "Nowhere." There were no planets, no stations, no nearby ships other than the turian frigate. The Council representative and captain of the Vellius had only been aboard for a few minutes when Shepard gave the order to relocate to another system. The Vellius followed, as it had been apparently doing since Normandy left Sahrabarik, but did so now openly while maintaining a tight-beam connection to the SR-2. The sensor nets of the two ships could operate as one, exponentially increasing their detection power.
But other than the link to the turians, Shepard maintained the lockdown on all outgoing transmissions. Any news on the Giraf or happenings in the fleet remained frustratingly out of reach, and she was still no closer to finding out what that damned asari was doing on board or why she was causing such a panic. All she could do was mind her panels and hope that the Commander would summon her soon. Fortunately, she did not have to wait long.
"Secure from general quarters," EDI said. "Navigation, propulsion and sensor sections maintain readiness. Department heads report to the briefing room. Additional personnel, Legion, Mobile Platform Two, please report to the briefing room."
Tali let out a sigh of relief. She thought back to the conference after their return from the center of the galaxy and the turmoil that followed. Hopefully, this one would have a happier ending, but in her heart she knew if the Citadel was getting involved, it would not. At least her fears about Shepard cutting her out proved to be unfounded. That she could even consider such a thing just reinforced how worried she was about the situation with the geth. Stress was obviously getting to her. She locked her station and sent the status feeds to her helmet display. "Call us if you need anything," she told Gabby. "OK, Legion, you ready for this?"
Legion locked its screens and turned to follow. "Acknowledged."
"I know I wasn't invited," said Kal'Reegar, who still waited patiently in the corner of the compartment. "But you know where to find me if you need some legs broken."
"Thanks," she said and grinned. "I hope it doesn't come to that. I'll let you know what we find out. You going to be okay here?"
"Gonna grab some shut-eye," Reeger said as he leaned against the wall and slid down next to a console.
"We have sleeping chambers," Tali said. "You're welcome to use one."
"No, ma'am, this will be fine. I'm out of the way, it's quiet, and no one is shooting at me. Couldn't ask for anything more."
"Okay then, I'll see you in a little bit." She smiled at him. "Good night, Kal."
"Good luck ma'am."
While waiting for the lift, Tali stared at the turian shuttle dangling from the rails in the hangar deck. "So do you think this is going to be good news or bad news?"
"We cannot predict with any reliable certainty," Legion said as it stood next to her. It followed through the lift doors when they opened. "While the geth do not welcome intervention by the Citadel Council, their influence throughout the galaxy is undeniable. Regardless of the desires of many to prevent their intervention, we judge it prudent to prepare for the inevitable."
Tali slumped against the elevator's wall. Exhaustion was taking its toll and she wondered if Reegar didn't have the right idea of just collapsing in an out-of-the-way corner of the ship. Or was she just coming around to the idea that Legion might be right? As isolated as it was, the Migrant Fleet was still affected every day by the Citadel and its rulings. Trade laws, economic regulations, traffic and travel rules didn't directly apply to the flotilla, but they certainly affected everyone with whom the fleet might want to conduct business. That alone had kept the quarians drifting amongst the unclaimed fringes of the galaxy, isolated from "civilized" space. Without trade, even a species with a homeworld would be locked out from joining galactic society. And the Citadel held all the keys.
When the elevator opened on CIC, Kelly pointed to port. "Hi Tali. Blue's waiting for you in the armory. She said it would better signify unity if you went in together."
Tali's gut clenched at the use of the word she when referring to Platform Two. She glanced over at Legion, who looked back and forth between the women. She didn't know why it bothered her - after all, she'd strenuously protested the anthropomorphizing of Legion when it first came aboard, but now called it 'he' along with everyone else... happily, even. What was the difference? The geth watched her, like it was always prone to do when organics talked and it wasn't sure of its place in the conversation. She smiled at it warmly. The difference is he earned it. "Come on, Legion. Let's go see what Platform Two is up to. Thanks, Kelly."
When she and Legion entered the armory, they found Platform Two standing with its arms out at its side in front of Jacob's workbench. A pair of standard geth platforms hovered around it, one micro-fabricating patches for the dings and scratches in Platform Two's armor, while the second followed with a hand-held buffing tool. It turned its head to face the newcomers, and waved a hand at its wrist without moving its arm so as not to interrupt the work of its companions. "Hello, Tali, Legion."
"Platform Two," Tali said. She still could not bring herself to call it by its nickname, and its hyper-realistic quarian vocoder still sent shivers down her spine. "What are you doing?"
"Just getting a quick touch up." Blue's voice was full of synthetic cheer.
"Were you damaged?" Tali stepped closer and did a quick visual inspection. She didn't recall the blue geth taking barrier-penetrating hits. But with freshly applied polish, the its armor once again had the sheen it did when it first boarded the ship, a far cry from how it looked after the battle on Dashta.
"Only superficially, fortunately," the geth said. The pair of standard platforms concluded their work and stepped away, replaced their tools neatly on Jacob's workbench then headed for the hatch acting on some unheard order. Tali's mouth fell open as Blue did a turn in front of her and struck a pose like a model similar to the ones on the covers of the magazines Joker sometimes kept hidden under his console. "How do I look?" it asked.
Tali held her hands up and took a step back, her eyes clamped shut. "Okay, this has got to stop."
Blue's facial plates expanded and its stance changed to one suitable for casual conversation. "I'm sorry, I don't understand. What should be stopped?"
Tali waved her hands in frustration. "This. All of this. You- I... You are not quarian."
"Of course not," Blue said. "I am a geth mobile platform."
"Then why are you pretending to be one of us? The voice, the gestures. It's not natural. I mean... since when does a machine care how it looks?"
Blue clasped its hands together. "Organics judge others based on physical appearance. I wanted to look my best for the Council representative during our first formal encounter. As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression." It looked Tali over head to toe, noting her dingy, stained scarves and wrap. "You have obviously been preoccupied with your duties. Perhaps you and Legion would like to take a moment to freshen up?"
Blue looked at Legion in confusion, then back to Tali. "Would you like to take a moment to clean up before we meet with Miss T'Vari? Legion in particular. I'm concerned about the impression he will make. Perhaps it would be best if we went in without him?"
Tali turned to Normandy's original geth with an exasperated gasp. Its central eye expanded and contracted as it stared back at her, its faceplates fluctuating in time to its harsh, mechanical voice. "Would you prefer if we did not accompany you?"
Tali cocked her head and sighed at the geth. She saw its the chipped paint, the scrapes and divots in its cowling, the worn edges of its face plates. Legion's entire body had been subjected to years of punishment: great falls, massive collisions and terrible impacts from hazards both natural and organic. Its conductive tubes were candy-striped from repeated tapings and patches, its joints and actuators stained from repeated lubricant leaks. Most distinctive of all, though, was the massive, ragged hole blown clear through its chest, partially replaced with the shoulder piece from a set of battered N7 armor. Compared to Blue's sleek, clean lines and spotless surfaces, Legion looked to most like a shambling, zombie geth back from the dead, searching for parts to cannibalize to rebuild itself. But not to the eyes of this particular quarian. Like the ships that made up the Migrant Fleet, Legion was a testament to machines in service well beyond their intended limits, patched and reworked, jury-rigged to function with whatever was on hand, no longer top of the line, but never to be forgotten or abandoned... Legion was proof of the old quarian adage that kept the Flotilla going for three centuries, "just because something is brand new, it didn't necessarily mean it's better."
Tali grabbed Legion's hand and led him through the hatch leading to the conference room. "No, we'll go on without you," she told Blue. "I think you missed a spot."
In the briefing room, Miranda's fingers danced across the virtual keypad at the tables' main console while Enlea looked over her shoulder. Now that she and EDI knew what to look for, they were finding pieces of Enlea's tracking program spread throughout dozens of Normandy's subsystems. Separately they consisted of undetectable, miniscule routines that imitated and emulated existing code, but together built a small chain of data that fed seamlessly into Normandy's docking interfaces. So, even with the transponder spoofed or turned off, the ship was leaving a trail of digital breadcrumbs any time it passed through a relay or docked at a station.
"So how did you find these markers once they were generated?" Miranda asked. Her anger over being compromised gave way to admiration when she saw the elegance with which the tracking program had been engineered. It wasn't often that Cerberus found itself playing catch-up when it came to espionage. Miranda copied the last of the code into an isolated repository so it could be studied later. Unless the asari was a very good liar, every component of the program had been successfully removed.
Enlea leaned in and pulled up a holo panel and typed a few commands. "I've got search bots which comb both system and relay nav nets for the tracking token. Any time your ship interfaced with a relay or traffic control, it would show up here. As you can see, it stopped generating before the last jump."
"Interesting," Miranda said.
Commander Shepard paced back and forth on the other side of the table where Mordin, Garrus and Captain Artuis were seated. He did not share Miranda's curiosity about the security breach. "So that's taken care of. Good. Who are you working for?"
Enlea stood straight and flashed a nervous smile. "Um... You're welcome?"
Shepard stopped in his tracks and stared at the asari. He turned to face her and marched toward her around the table. "Give me something to thank you for. Someone just tried to have all of us killed, Miss T'vari, and right now you're the only suspect. But I'm grateful you took the bulls-eye off the back of my ship after it happened."
Enlea found herself at a loss of words. During the short shuttle flight she wondered how she could reveal what she knew without betraying her kind to the one person who needed to know. After receiving her last order she knew she could no longer be a part of what was about to transpire. Standing this close to him, she could see his eyes were still bloodshot from smoke and ringed dark from exhaustion."It's... complicated, Commander."
"I'm not in the mood for complications," Shepard stood with his fists against the table. "I want to know what you know, and I want to know right now."
The asari exhaled deeply as she tried to come up with a simple answer. She reached out to the console to where Miranda had attached her omnitool. "May I?" she asked, and when she was granted control, she transferred her omnitool's feed to the main holo projector toward the table's far end. The room fell quiet as its occupants read the screen.
Contact between quarians and geth must be prevented. Ensure the destruction of the Normandy by any means necessary.
"Well that's a bit extreme," Garrus said during the stunned silence. "Whatever happened to asking nicely?"
Enlea took a breath to begin what was sure to be a lengthy explanation when the briefing room hatch hissed open behind her. She turned to see the quarian engineer, Tali, flanked on her left by the scrap-laden geth named Legion, and on the right by a shiny blue model she'd never seen before. The young woman stopped short, evidently surprised to see the asari at the head of the table. Her eyes focused past Enlea to the words projected in giant letters near the far end of the table. They grew wide, glimmering brightly behind her opaque facemask as she read, then immediately narrowed to glowing slits as they locked back on Enlea.
Enlea didn't have to see her face to recognize the expression of abject hate and rage. Tali crouched and reached low on her left leg, producing a very lethal looking stiletto. Enlea backed instinctively away and found herself blocked by the table as the quarian leaped toward her, but that didn't scare her nearly as much as the hellish red light that poured from the cyclops eye of the hulking, half-destroyed machine following immediately behind.