All in the Family
Enlea had mixed feelings about returning to the conference room. The first time she set foot here, she witnessed what might be the most important discovery in galactic history as Commander Shepard revealed to the Citadel the full danger of the impending reaper invasion. Much as she wished she could go back in time and erase the horrible visions of what was to come, the most powerful militaries in the galaxy now knew of the threat and were working together to come up with a defense.
It was that first encounter that lead directly to her return to the Normandy, though her second visit was far less cordial. Admittedly, she had come aboard to warn Shepard and his crew of what amounted to an execution order. The revelation that it was intended as a safety measure to keep the geth and quarians apart was what really complicated the matter. Only timely intervention by Shepard prevented his quarian engineer from stabbing her in the heart, then being choked to death by a rampaging geth.
Now, she carefully positioned herself on the opposite side of the table from the volatile quarian. Flanked by Miranda and Garrus, with the blue geth and Professor Solus as an additional buffer, Enlea hoped that would be enough to prevent any more physical altercations, especially if the stated reason for her mission turned out to be true. She watched Tali pace back and forth in front of a shiny white geth which panned its head to follow her. Fortunately, Shepard had the good sense not to invite the monstrosity with the giant hole in its chest. She massaged her bruised throat and tried to forget the feel of its cold, crushing grip on her neck.
"Well?" Tali stopped and stared at Miranda.
"Just a moment," Miranda said as she prepared a series of graphs and charts on the table's holo panel for projection.
"If you're not ready, then why are we wasting our time here?"
"We are waiting for Commander Shepard. We will proceed when he arrives. Calm down, Tali. Please."
"You tell everyone my people tried to have us killed, and expect me to be calm?"
"Yes," Miranda didn't look up from her screen. "I do."
"Ladies," Garrus said, his voice calm. "Let's be friends."
Tali rolled her eyes at the turian and resumed her pacing as Legion looked on.
Shepard stomped through the hatch. The Commander was never one to wear his heart on his sleeve, but it was apparent to everyone present that he was pissed. "All right, Jacob's sitting on Reegar. Show us what you got, Miranda."
Miranda brought up projection showing a horizontal line with annotations at various positions. "In figuring out who was behind the attack, we had to work backwards. This is a timeline of the events surrounding our arrival at Dashta and the battle itself. But there are several key events prior that need to be examined: Yesterday, 27 November, 1625 ship time. Jack calls the ship, warning us of the impending attack. This is Zero hour. Note that the Normandy has been docked at Dashta for less than forty minutes."
Shepard leaned against the table, his knuckles white from the pressure exerted on them.
"Before that," Miranda pulled up the ship's data recorder showing the ship's flight path, "again, working backwards. T-Minus one hour, fifteen minutes. We broke from Sahrabarik after eluding both the Alliance and Citadel fleets on our way to Erinle. According to the information in Enlea's omnitool, this is the absolute earliest anyone at the Citadel or her handlers on Thessia could have been aware of our destination. The Vellius was ordered there after the fact, after the battle was underway. Flight data and communications records confirm this."
Miranda shifted the pointer to the left on the line and pages from the ship's log scrolled before the assembled party. "The next event prior: T-Minus two hours, forty-seven minutes. Commander Shepard orders the Normandy to make ready to depart to Erinle and collects travel requests for departing crew. This is key because it's the point at which the decision to go to Erinle was made. I believe this event precludes the possibility of anyone aboard the Normandy for being the source of the leak, for reasons which will soon become clear. Prior to this, no one, including the Commander knows where we are going. Except..."
The pointer shifted once more. "The Admiralty Board of the quarian Migrant Fleet. T-Minus three hours, fifty-one minutes. Tali'Zorah is contacted by Admiral Han'Gerrel and asked to bring the geth to the Flotilla to engage in face-to-face negotiations. As the Normandy has been banned from from approaching the Flotilla, the quarians arranged a rendezvous at Dashta Interchange Station. At this point, Admiral Gerrel and the other members of the Board are the only ones to know where the rendezvous will take place."
She turned to the turian. "Garrus, how large of a force do you estimate that engaged us on Dashta?"
"Hmm," Garrus performed some quick mental calculations. "Total? Two hundred, maybe two-twenty with heavy weapons and mech support. Except it wasn't one cohesive unit. That's important to note."
"That's correct." Miranda touched a key and projected a slideshow of images taken from the squad's gun cameras and drone feeds. "Eclipse, Blue Suns, and Blood Pack. All working together."
"All right, we knew that." Shepard said. "Get to the point."
Miranda noted the impatience in Shepard's tone but still looked at Garrus. If she didn't present her methodology first, she knew the conclusion would not sit well with at least one person in the room. "So if the Hierarchy had to get that many troops to Dashta to intercept us, how would they do it? Again, their best troops."
"That would be the Rapid Reaction Force," Garrus said, "3rd Battalion, First Regiment, out of Digeris. Six companies, each with three platoons of vacc infantry with an attached mechanized section. They're always three on alert, and they can deploy to any system with a relay and be ready for action within four hours of receiving orders. That's who they'd send."
Miranda brought up the time line once more. "So, hypothetically, if the turians had intercepted Gerrel's transmission, an element of the RRF would have been ready to engage us... nine minutes after we arrived."
Garrus rested his arms against the table as he studied the timeline. "Give or take, depending on if they caught all the lights."
"For the sake of thoroughness," Miranda glanced at Tali as she pulled up a Cerberus organizational diagram. "A Cerberus mechanized assault team: similar in composition to an RRF, shock troops with Atlas heavy mechs, specializing in boarding actions. Best simulation time puts them on site... twelve minutes after we got there."
Shepard pointed at the screen. "But we weren't attacked by Cerberus or the Hierarchy. We're trying to figure out if the Admiralty Board sold us out. What's this tell us?"
"Bear with me, Shepard," Miranda said. "These figures provide valuable context."
Tali scowled and shook her head. "You said it yourself, we were docked for forty minutes. That, plus the fact Erinle is just one jump away from Omega gave the mercenaries plenty of time."
"I think see what she's getting at," Garrus said. "There wasn't a single sign that there was going to be an attack. They were in place, well hidden and ready long before we set foot on that station. And these aren't elite units we're talking about here. These are mercenaries of varying levels of professionalism. Eclipse's best could pull off a quick strike like that but only if they utilized all of their finest operators. Blue Suns, same, but they'd have half the amount of troops that could qualify. But the Blood Pack? Those idiots couldn't organize a happy hour in four hours' time."
Garrus studied the timeline. "And all three of them working together? Coordinating transportation of troops and materials, setting up communications, hell just accounting for fights amongst themselves, they would have been lucky to get that a force like they fielded ready to go inside of a day."
Miranda nodded as she scrolled the timeline back to the beginning, to the first point marked with an X. "Which brings us to the inciting event. T-Minus twenty-six hours. Hypothetical time based on known composition of enemy forces to plan an ambush, transport and deploy three separate mercenary groups once they were informed of our destination. This was when the attack was orchestrated. Given our adversaries, there is no way it could have been conceived and executed in any less time. It's just not possible."
Shepard eyed the figures on the screen then looked at his XO. "So whoever did knew we would be there a day in advance."
"But how is that possible?" Jacob pointed at the timeline. "We didn't know we'd be there until four hours before it happened. How could anybody set up an ambush like that the day before? They bring in fortune tellers?"
"They wouldn't have to," Miranda explained. "All they would need is is a compelling reason for us to go there and keep some control over the timing on their end so we wouldn't ruin the ambush by showing earlier than expected."
Mordin sniffed. "Such as delivering an envoy to peace negotiations."
Still pacing, Tali couldn't look anyone in the eye. So far, she was able to explain away what she had seen, but the cold feeling in the pit of her stomach seemed to be spreading by the minute. "So? All that proves is that that the Admirals' security was penetrated earlier than we thought."
Garrus shook his head. "Tali's right. The entire quarian communication network was compromised a week before any of this happened. Could be they didn't plug all the leaks, or someone," he looked at Enlea, "with an interest in the matter found another way in. All I'm saying is that anyone could have intercepted internal communications and tipped off the people that attacked us. This is not the smoking heat sink we're looking for."
Most of the time, Garrus's cold, analytical side drove Tali crazy, but at that moment she could have hugged him. She glared at Miranda across the table. "That's right. For all we know, it could have been Cerberus."
"Tali, this is nothing personal," Miranda sighed. "We need to look at every possibility, and yes that includes Cerberus. But right now, the evidence suggests the quarian Admiralty Board, or someone close to them." She turned to Shepard. "But my gut tells me that Dashta started with them."
Shepard reached down and keyed the intercom. "Jacob? Send Reegar in."
The briefing room hatch split open. Jacob stepped aside and waved Kal'Reegar through. He looked at the grim expressions worn by his ship mates, except for the Commander who had his back turned, hunched over the table. "Sir?"
"Commander," Reegar stood at attention inside the door. He, too, noticed the strained expressions as well as the presence of a new geth platform, this one white, standing next to Tali'Zorah. Having been rousted from sleep only minutes before, he couldn't help but wonder what he'd missed to cause such a change in the crew's demeanor.
"Kal," Shepard turned, his eyes dark with anger. "I need to know what your orders at Dashta were. I don't care who gave them to you or how confidential they may be."
The quarian marine looked him in the eye. "Same as I told you when we were on the station. Look after Tali'Zorah, sir. Other than that, I was just along for the ride."
"Do you have any idea when the Giraf received orders to go to Dashta?"
Reegar looked again at Tali, who seemed to be trying to bore a hole through his skull with her eyes as she steadied herself against the chair in front of her. "Couldn't tell you, sir. I was just a passenger. Giraf happened to be on the rotation for transport duty when the call came in, and that was about two hours before we got to Erinle. Could have been any ship, really."
Tali let out the breath she'd been holding.
Shepard leaned against the table with his arms folded in front of him. "What about Rilos? When did you link up with him?"
Reegar thought back. "He met me at the docking bay about an hour before we took off. Sorry, Shepard. I'm pretty low on the distro list when it comes to these things. What is it you're looking for?"
Shepard turned to the timeline and rubbed the back of his neck. Their hottest lead was cooling in a hurry. "Trying to figure out the earliest point anyone knew we'd be at Dashta."
"Ha. That I can tell you." Reegar nodded. "At least for me. Day before."
Shepard whirled around to face the quarian. Everyone around the table perked up, and Tali's hands now gripped the cushion on the chair so tight that she pierced the leather. "The day before. How do you know?"
"Admiral Gerrel contacted me himself. I'd been doing nothing but leading combat drills after I shot my mouth off at the trial. Past few days, ever since the negotiations started actually, it's been really intense. They've been working the hell out of everybody. Out of nowhere, Gerrel calls and apologizes for putting me on a shit detail and says he has an important job and I'm the only one he can trust to do it. He said we were picking up Tali and her friend Legion and bringing them back to the Fleet. I'd get out of corralling machinists and repair techs that haven't touched a weapon since basic, get out of the crosshairs of the brass, and get to see and old friend all at the same time. So I was happy to do it. Besides, when an Admiral taps you for an op, you don't say no."
"When," Shepard said. "When exactly did he contact you?"
Reegar pulled up his omnitool. "Let's see. Day ninety-one of this cycle. Fifteen hundred hours. That significant?"
Miranda plugged the figures into the timeline. The calendar program converted the quarian fleet time to match the Normandy's. A dot showed up left of the X mark on the timeline. "T-minus twenty-eight hours, eleven minutes."
The hairs on the back of Shepard's neck stood straight. "Son of a bitch."
"Excuse me, sir?"
"Sorry, didn't mean you. Miranda, pull up the roster."
"No," Tali shook her head slowly. "No. This isn't right. This can't be right..."
"What's going on, ma'am?" Reegar asked. "What's this all about?"
Miranda pulled the ship's roster on the main holo, pulled from the omnitool of the mercenary killed just outside of the cockpit during the boarding action. "Mister Reegar, does this mean anything to you?"
Reegar scanned the names and numbers on the screen. "Looks like someone tallied up the value of everything you've shot up and put the price tag around your neck. Wait, that can't be right, Shepard. You came in second to Vakarian?"
Garrus stretched his elbows behind his back. "He did indeed."
"You're slipping, Commander."
"Dashta wasn't a random attack," Shepard said sharply. "It was a hit, and we were the targets. Every merc group in the Terminus came gunning for us. Someone tipped them off that we'd be there."
"Damn," Reegar looked at the names again, many of whom he considered friends. His eyes fell on Tali'Zorah's, with three million credits logged as her bounty. He straightened to full height in his suit. "Well, what are we waiting for? Let's go get some payback."
Shepard studied the marine in front of him. They'd only met a few times, but in the field or in the Flotilla, Reegar proved to be an honorable man. While the Admiralty Board and the Conclave were busy tearing Tali's life in the fleet apart, he was one of two quarians to stand by her side. Besides, he thought, Reegar didn't hesitate to say when he'd received the orders. If he were in on it, he would have tried to hide it. He leaned back against the table arms across his chest. "There's a strong possibility that someone is on the Admiralty Board."
Reegar laughed behind his mask. "What? You're joking, right?" He looked at Tali who shook her head with tears glittering around her glowing eyes.
"I wish I were."
"Wait, this doesn't make any sense," Reegar stammered. "I mean, why kill you? You're about the only friends outside the fleet we've got."
"The Admirals don't seem to think so."
"Well sure. You were a five-star ass to 'em at the trial. But they had it coming, and everybody knows it. You think they'd kill you for making them look bad? They'd have to take each other out, first. I don't buy it."
Miranda pointed to the timeline. "Based on the information we have, they are the only ones with knowledge of our whereabouts who were in a position where they could have made this attack happen."
Garrus lowered his gaze. "Which means they have means and opportunity... But not motive. Before we go making any wild accusations, we need to be sure."
"Excuse me," Enlea raised her hand slightly. She had been silent up to this point, not wanting to attract any attention to herself. "Um, excuse me. If I may suggest something. Just a theory. You may not have been the target of this raid."
Jacob pointed to the bounty screen. "What the hell are you talking about? Our names are right in front of you!"
The asari kept her focus on the projection. "Miranda. Could you bring up the station schematic at the beginning of the battle?" The main projection switched Dashta's triple-ladder configuration. Enlea pointed out features as we spoke. "When we approached the station, Normandy was under attack from ships docked here, here, and here. Plus this vessel here, which was jamming your communications. The one Captain Artuis destroyed. And these dots represent the location of your crew?"
"That's right," Shepard said.
"So this half was the kill zone," Enlea gestured to the dots near the center of the station, surrounded by hostile forces. She looked back at the far end where the quarian ship was docked, with four dots outside it's airlock. "Who was down here? Why would they try to separate this group from the rest?"
"That's Blue, Tali, Legion and myself." Shepard said.
Mordin shook his head rapidly. "Unsure of where this is going. With Normandy under attack, killing Shepard would have been highest priority."
Garrus cleared his throat. "Second highest, as it turned out."
Shepard's eyes darkened as he stared at the station schematic. "Except the quarians didn't know I was going to be there. I invited myself. They were just expecting Legion and Tali."
"Perhaps it was them they wanted," Enlea said, glancing about nervously, "and they just wanted the rest of you out of the way."
"That's ridiculous," Tali stammered.
"Again, I have to ask why," Garrus said. "I mean, no offense to Tali, but look at the lengths they took to oust her from the Fleet. And Legion? Sure, he's a snappy dresser now, but what use would he have been to them? He's running an outdated firmware that's no longer supported by the manufacturer, if you know what I mean?"
"Yeah but they didn't know that," Shepard jabbed at the air with his finger. "They don't know the geth rewrote themselves to be more secure. Think about it... After the geth network got hacked, they fell back to the Veil and disappeared. As far as the Admirals knew, Legion was the only geth left roaming the Terminus, and he was with us." He turned to Tali and Legion. "Remember back at the Giraf? Rilos and Captain Carn didn't care about me or even Blue. They forbade us from coming aboard. All they cared about Legion."
"And Tali," Kal'Reegar couldn't keep his eyes from the room's only other quarian. She stood as stunned and demoralized as that day aboard the Rayya when she was made the scapegoat for a calamity that killed her father and nearly brought ruin to the entire Fleet. Except this time the man who defended her now acted the part of the prosecutor.
Shepard didn't even look at his downtrodden engineer. Instead, he remained focused on the marine. "Admiral Gerrel asked you to look out for her, didn't he? In case there was trouble? Tell me, is Gerrel psychic? Did he have some kind of premonition? It came to him in a dream? Or did he know something was about to go down and wanted to keep his best friend's daughter out of the line of fire?"
Tali looked up at the bounty list. Both she and Legion were on it, but Shepard was right. They had been nowhere near the fighting and had several opportunities to retreat to the Giraf and escape. Sweat dribbled down her forehead. Could the Admirals have been responsible for this mess? She gripped the back of the chair tighter as the room spun around her. If the Admiralty Board really was behind the attack, that meant the man who was more of a father to her than her real father had been was responsible for almost destroying everything she held most dear. Her ship, her friends... and possibly the last hope her people had of making peace. Worse, it meant they never wanted peace to begin with.
Her eyes flitted down the crew roster, each name with a cash value attached to it. Garrus, Kasumi, Joker... Shepard. Names of her friends, names of her family. People whom she subconsciously added "vas Normandy" to the end of their names, even Miranda. Her eyes began to tear up again.
"So what was the end game, then?" Garrus asked. "Even if Legion was running the latest version of GethOS and they succeeded in grabbing him, then what? He could have just switched off and erased himself, we'd be dead and the whole damn thing would have been for nothing. Do you really think they'd risk so much for so little gain?"
Shepard's lips thinned as he moved to the head of the table next to Miranda and the table's console. His personal mailbox appeared on the holo, and he scrolled through hundreds of messages. Names of people and places flashed by. Illium. The Citadel. Admiral Hackett. The Illusive Man. Shepard stopped on a message sent just days before the Normandy's voyage through Omega Four. He opened it up on the main display for all to see. "Maybe they figured a way around that. The last time we left the Flotilla, one of the Admirals was kind enough to send me a little thank you note for all we did for them."
From: Admiral Daro'Xen vas Moreh
Shepard vas Normandy,
I've been digging through the Alarei. Just wanted you to know that I did find a few things from the experiments Rael'Zorah was conducting. Had you shared them with me, humanity might have reaped the benefits. Instead, once my own experiments are complete, you and your people will watch from a distance as the quarian people reclaim not just their homeworld, but the largest synthetic army in the galaxy. Rael'Zorah's death will not have been in vain. I will complete what he started.
Admiral Daro'Xen vas Moreh
"Holy hell," Garrus winced. He looked at the two geth, who seemed transfixed as they read the message. He turned back to Shepard, whose face was turning crimson beneath the room's soft lights. "I have a feeling she's going to regret having sent that."
Blue's facial plates expanded to their maximum extension. It spoke in a harsh, mechanical tone, once again sounding like Legion. "Shepard-Commander. Request relocating within proximity of a comm relay as soon as possible. We must notify the collective. Negotiations must be terminated immediately."
"Understood," Shepard said. "Meet me in CIC. I'll be there in a minute."
"Thank you, Shepard-Commander."
Enlea watched the blue geth stare at the Admiral's message up until the point it vanished when Miranda killed the holo. It turned towards her and paused as if seeing her for the first time. Though it was smaller than the platform which attacked her, she found herself stepping back involuntarily. She gave it a nervous wave as it walked silently past. "Love the color."
With no post on the ship and without any instructions on what she should do to help, she stood by the table and waited for either Miranda or Shepard to tell her. She looked back across the table to see the purple-clad quarian still holding onto the chair in front of her as if in shock. Enlea looked quickly away, but it was too late.
"Congratulations," Tali looked down at the table. "Looks like you were right all along."
"I'm..." sorry, Enlea was about to say, but she didn't know if it would come off sincerely or if it was even welcome. But after seeing in Miranda's files what acts of treachery her own leaders were capable of, she actually meant it. "I'm sorry."
Shepard turned back to his crew. "Department heads, tend to your departments. Let's get ready to move. EDI, contact the Vellius. Let them know we're about to get underway."
"Wait a minute, Shepard," Reegar held out a hand to block the blue geth's progress towards the hatch, but it walked quickly around without a second glance. He moved next to the human. "What are you going to do? Nothing stupid, I hope."
"First priority is making sure that the geth know to cut off all communications with the quarian fleet."
"That's not what I meant. What are you going to do about the Admirals?"
Shepard turned to face Reegar as his crew filed out the door around them. For an instant, an image flashed in Shepard's mind of Admiral Xen lying on the ground at his feet, writhing, covered in blood after having every last one of Jack's tattoos carved into her envirosuit with a switchblade. "I haven't worked that out yet."
Tali leaned her head against the Kodiak's window and watched ships of all shapes and tonnages slip by. There was theHartono, the massive elcor bulk freighter that had been converted completely to living quarters for over eight thousand quarian families. The Zaggorn, a hanar bioship, essentially a gigantic, cylindrical space going aquarium which now stored water for almost a quarter of the Flotilla. Then they passed the Olionna, a passenger liner used during the earliest days of the Geth Uprising to evacuate quarians from Rannoch. It made dozens of trips to the surface and back, carrying countless thousands of quarians to what was supposed to be temporary refuge until the homeworld could be reclaimed. She shifted in her seat and pushed a worn fabric sack further under her chair with her legs, the single memento from the Fleet she chose to bring with her into exile.
Looking aft, she saw a giant white crescent moon receding behind them. The, Rayya, her birthship, it's giant biodome slowly spinning, giving the massive ship the impression it was rolling through space. She felt a hand tugging at her wrist. Garrus, in the seat next to her, reached across her lap for her omnitool. He'd probably been talking for some time, she realized.
"That ship was crawling with geth," Garrus said. "There's no way your father didn't know what was going on. You collected half a dozen data logs. Surely you must have found something. Maybe you should let me take a look at them. I don't know, maybe we can call for a mistrial or something."
Tali pushed his hand away and turned back to the window. "There's nothing there."
"We can not give up," Garrus said. "Commander, are you really going to stand by and let them do this to her?"
Shepard glared at the turian from across the aisle on the aft bench. "It's out of my hands, Garrus. Leave it alone"
"I said let it go."
Tali looked at Shepard and their eyes met briefly. She mouthed 'thank you,' even though he couldn't see it because of the infernal mask she was forced to wear around any other species. But it was too late. Shepard's shifted his gaze out the window looking forward, his face empty and defeated.
"Well," Garrus put his hand on Tali's knee. "For what it's worth. "I'm glad they're letting you stay with us. The ship wouldn't be the same without you. You're a credit to the name."
"Thank you," Tali sniffed. Once again, she tried to meet Shepard's eyes with her own, but he stayed focused on the view out the window.
"Rolston," he said, "What's our ETA?"
The pilot sounded disappointed. "Ah, thirty-five minutes, sir. We're having keep it well under max V because of Fleet navigational restrictions."
"All right, don't get us pulled over." Shepard's brow furrowed as if deep in thought. "Excuse me," he said and before walking forward to the cockpit.
Garrus shook his head as he watched the Commander go, an astonished look on his face. "What is happening here?"
Tali sighed and turned back to the window. The shuttle's trajectory had carried the Rayya out of view. She wondered briefly if she would ever see it with her own eyes again. She closed her eyes with a heavy sigh as exhaustion finally delivered a peace she knew she wasn't likely to find anywhere else.
When she opened her eyes again, Garrus was shaking her shoulder. "Hey," he said. "We're back."
Tali looked out the window at the wall of Normandy's hangar. So begins the first day of exile, she thought. Though compared to others who suffered the same fate, she had to admit she could have ended up somewhere much, much worse. She leaned down to pick up her sack, then stood and walked towards the shuttle's equipment locker in the aft compartment.
Shepard stood and rotated his right arm and shoulder. "Leave it," he said, referring to their stowed gear. "We'll get it later. I want to get out of this suit."
"Me too," Garrus said with a loud sigh, sounding uncharacteristically defeated compared to his earlier fire. "Been a long day."
"Aye, sir," Tali stepped towards the exit and opened the hatch. All she wanted to do was get back to her quarters, throw herself on the bed and cry herself to sleep. The last thing she wanted to do was break down in front of Shepard, or worse, Garrus. She'd never hear the end of it. She jumped down the stairs to the deck and hurried towards the elevator with her eyes downcast when a wall of sound stopped her in her tracks. At first she thought her exterior microphones had shorted out with white noise, until she saw the source in front of her.
Standing between her and the elevator stood the entire company and crew of the Normandy in dress uniforms for the Cerberus side and whatever passed for formal for the squad. And they were all applauding. She turned around to look at what they were cheering to see Shepard and Garrus coming up behind her, both with smiles on their face. Shepard pointed upwards and aft, motioning for the confused quarian to follow his gaze.
Across the pane glass windows overlooking the hangar deck hung a giant banner, written in two-meter tall Fleet Standard script. "Welcome Aboard Tali'Zorah vas Normandy"
"Keelah," Tali murmured and clutched her bag to her chest as as she was suddenly surrounded by wide open arms smiling faces. The men and women of the ship hugged her and patted her on the back, rotating as efficiently ships of the Migrant Fleet on maneuver, until a loud, piercing voice rose above the din.
"All right, everyone," Miranda shouted. "Stand at ease. At ease!" The throng around Tali opened in front of the Cerberus operative, and she approached Tali holding a thin book in her hand. Yeoman Chambers was right behind her, a huge smile on her face.
"Tali'Zorah vas Normandy," Miranda said. "it is my duty as executive officer of the vessel whose name you now bear to officially log your name into the ship's registry." She presented the book she carried to the quarian.
Tali took it into her hands. It was bound with stiff cardboard, with a mottled black and white pattern on its cover. She flipped it open from the back and leafed through dozens of pages of blank graph paper. When she got to the front, a taped-in page unfurled, containing a list of hand scrawled words in languages she couldn't begin to recognize, next to quarian labels translating them into names she would never forget.
"It's actually one of Mordin's lab books," Kelly smiled. "It's the best we could come up with on such short notice!"
"No, it's wonderful." Tali whispered, trying to keep her hands from shaking as she looked over the roster. "Absolutely perfect!"
"Looks like we're missing someone," Shepard said over her shoulder. He pointed at the page near the top.. "It's not official until you sign in. Anybody got a pen?"
Kelly bowed her head and produced a disposable ball-point. "Allow me, ma'am," she said as she traded it to Tali for the book and held it open for her.
Tali looked where Shepard had been pointing. Five spaces down was a blank line next to the name "Tali'Zorah vas Normandy" in a quarian font. She paused briefly to look at the names above. Commander Shepard, Joker, Doctor Chakwas and Garrus had signed above, all members of the original crew of the SR-1. Below were the rest of the crew and squad in the order they joined.
Tali choked back a sob with a joyous laugh. "And of course you had to put my name under Garrus's!"
"Where it belongs," Garrus shrugged, standing behind Shepard. "I've got at least three day's seniority."
The echo of laughter died and the hangar fell silent as the quarian signed into the makeshift ledger. Miranda took the book from Kelly's hand and inspected it as if she could read the alien script. She nodded to Shepard, then actually smiled at Tali.
"Welcome aboard, Miss vas Normandy," she said, and handed the notebook to the stunned engineer. "It's yours to keep."
A deafening cheer filled the compartment, and once again Tali was surrounded by dozens of arms alternately hugging her or slapping her on the back. They came and went so fast she could hardly see who had grabbed her next, until one particular person held on a little too long.
"Is your suit pressurized ma'am," Kenneth said as he caressed her back, "because it feels very firm in the hind quarters!"
"Dammit Ken!" Gabby pinched the Scotsman by his ear and yanked downward, and he released his grip immediately. "Don't ruin this!"
"Ach," Ken said, doubled over. "What're ya doin', woman? You 'bout pulled the whole bloody lobe off!"
Gabby shoved her partner aside and gave Tali a solid hug, which the quarian tearfully returned. "I'm so glad you're back, boss!" The human said as she squeezed, then released so the next person in line could advance. "I couldn't handle going back to just me and him!"
Tali laughed as she found herself looking up into green skin and pitch black eyes. She used to find the drell's appearance frightening, but having gotten to know Thane the past few months, she could not remember meeting anyone as polite and urbane, no matter the circumstances. "Miss vas Normandy," he said with a slight bow. "Your predecessor was truly irreplaceable. But I know you will do her, and your namesake, proud in our continued journeys."
"Thank you, Thane," Tali said, keeping her distance because she knew of the drell's need for personal space.
"Lame," said the next voice, and the debonair assassin's form was replaced with a pale, bald human. She chewed loudly on a piece of the strange rubbery pink material humans seemed to enjoy and blew a bubble which burst in a loud SNAP directly in front of Tali's faceplate.
"Shepard's making all of us do this," Jack smacked her gum and turned away. "So welcome back, bucket-head."
Tali laughed. Even the resident thug's acerbic attitude couldn't bring her down from the high she felt as she was instantly replaced by another one of her ship mates welcoming her aboard. Joker, Gardner, Mordin, Kasumi, Jacob... even the grouchy mercenary Zaeed came by to shake her hand, and the diminutive quarian squealed out of fear and delight when she disappeared into Grunt's giant krogan-hug.
As the last of the crew offered their congratulations, Shepard held his hand up to the waiting crowd. "Okay people, listen up! Quiet! Quiet, everybody. The Admiralty Board has given us sixty minutes after returning to, and I quote, 'vacate the sovereign space of the Migrant Fleet.'"
A chorus of boos thundered through the hangar. Tali's smile disappeared from her face as she stared at the deck.
"So," Shepard continued and looked at his watch. "For the next... Forty-three minutes and twenty-one seconds, the lounge is OPEN. Everyone is invited to drink a toast to our new Chief Engineer, Tali'Zorah vas Normandy! I'm buying!"
Cheers once again filled the compartment, followed by a mad rush to the elevator and stairwells. It didn't take long before Tali was left standing alone with Shepard and Garrus in front of the Kodiak.
"Just for the record," Garrus said, "this was all my idea."
Shepard waved his hands at the turian. "Oh get the fuck out of here with that bullshit! You didn't do a damn thing!"
"Well I would have if you had told me sooner!"
"I called from the shuttle! While you were trying to hack into Tali's omnitool!"
Tali stomped her foot. "Hey!"
"He makes it sound so underhanded," Garrus said. "I was just... It was professional curiosity. The casework on this investigation seemed a little shaky."
"Garrus," Tali glared at him, "You touch my omnitool again and I swear you they'll be finding pieces of you around this ship when it goes in for its hundred year refit."
Garrus grunted and headed for the line waiting for the elevator. "Message received. Good to have you back, Tali."
"Gods I swear he does this on purpose," Tali said through clenched teeth. She looked back at Shepard. He'd taken off his helmet, his face glistened with sweat and covered with creases from where the pads kept the headgear secured. He watched the entire display with a small smile on his face. As hard as she tried, she couldn't stop herself. She opened her arms and pulled him close, burying her face against his armor. Shepard returned the embrace, rocking her slowly back and forth where they stood.
"I don't know what to say," she finally gasped.
"Welcome home, Tali," Shepard said, which made Tali squeeze hard enough he could almost feel it through his suit.
She pulled back and almost tripped on the bag at her feet. Shepard steadied her and reached down to pick it up. It did not seem very full.
"This all they let you bring back with you?" Shepard asked.
"What? Oh... No. Everything I own is already here," she took the bag from him and handed him the crew registry book while she dug into the sack. "Ah, this... Uh..." her hands were shaking again as she tried to pull the bag from around the object within. "It's customary that when a new crew member joins a ship that she presents her captain with a gift. Ordinarily, this happens when you come back from pilgrimage, but we just came back from the trial and they were kicking us out and I didn't have any time to find anything really spectacular, so I- I had to-"
When she stopped to take a breath, Shepard used his free hand to pull the bag away, revealing a plain brown card-stock box. He took it from her, once again trading the notebook.
"It's really nothing," Tali said, clasping the ship's registry as he opened the box. "But I know you like models, and..."
Shepard produced a toy ship from within, a scale model of the quarian transport ship commonly seen throughout the fleet. He held onto it with one hand and gave the thick vertical ring at the bow a spin. The carousel spun freely on its hub, as the real life counterpart would do to generate gravity. It was made of metal and plastic with chipped paint and scratches, having obviously been handed down for generations. But, he thought, considering where it came from, that just makes it more authentic.
He smiled at her. "I love it, Tali. I've got the perfect spot for it. Thank you."
Tali beamed. Her throat constricted tight and she couldn't have uttered another word if her life depended on it.
"Come on," Shepard said with the model ship in one hand, and his other gently guiding Tali towards the elevator's queue. "Let me buy you a drink, Miss vas Normandy."
From the corner of her eye, Tali caught movement next to the aft-most transformer block on the hanger floor. The strange geth that Shepard found on the derelict reaper watched their every move. Ordinarily, the sight of the wretched machine on the same deck would have sent her into a frenzy, but this had been no ordinary day. So, she let it go as her Captain escorted her to introduce her to her new family.
"Ten minutes to jump," EDI's voice echoed around engineering.
"How are we looking," Tali asked. The information she needed was clearly displayed on her console, but she believed it was always better to interact with her staff directly.
"Propulsion's in the green," Gabby looked over her shoulder at Tali. She wasn't sure what went on in the briefing room, and neither the Chief nor Legion was talking, but whatever it was they both seemed unusually reserved.
"Power to all systems registers nominal," Legion added from its station.
Tali confirmed the readings on the master panel and pressed the key that indicated Engineering was ready for maneuvers. The checks done, she turned and headed for the drive core. "OK it all looks good here," she said. "You two stay here. I just need to check on something."
Gabby blinked, looked at Legion and then down the corridor where Tali disappeared. "Everything okay, boss?"
Tali couldn't hear her over the steady thrum of the Normandy's drive core as she drew close, but she was counting on that. She stopped when she reached the railing, turned and slid with her back against it to the floor, arms around her knees, knowing she would have collapsed if she tried to stand any longer. She muted her external outputs and screamed, wailing that quickly turned to sobs that no one but her could hear. She hated herself for breaking down because it seemed to be happening less and less even with all of the strife and crises she'd faced lately. It was just so damned childish, and she chided herself for not being able to hold it together. At least she didn't do it in front of anyone else...But what logical reaction should someone have when one of their families tried to kill the other?