Normandy rolled starboard on its wing, slicing neatly between a pair of quarian bulk carriers lumbering in its way. Joker had no time to celebrate as the Normandy's new trajectory flung it right into the path of a battered container ship directly behind. The giant transport, illuminated in the bright glow of its anti-collision beacons, reversed thrust with all power.
"Shit!" Joker pitched Normandy's nose all the way up and kicked in the mains for a split second. Normandy slid over the top of the cruiser with ease, but the space beyond was just as crowded. It is worse than flying to the collector base except now, instead of oculus, they were being chased by quarian warships and he wasn't navigating his way through a field of uninhabited derelicts this time. One mistake in maneuvering could end thousands of lives. He wrenched the ship to port, skirting around another transport. "At least they're not shooting anymore."
Miranda kept her eyes on her displays, partially to maintain track on their pursuers, but mainly so she wouldn't see each and every close call through the cockpit window. The quarian navy vessels had dropped behind, but were still chasing the Normandy through the maze of ships. "They blew their chance. Now they're trying to flush us out. As soon as we get clear we need to be ready to jump. Hey! Watch your velocity!"
"It's not us," Joker said through clenched teeth. "We're not moving faster, they are! The whole damn flotilla just kicked it into high gear."
EDI's dots pulsed in time with her voice. "The Migrant Fleet is underway, on a direct course for the Raheel-Leyya relay."
"This is Admiral Daro'Xen vas Moreh, sole surviving member of the Admiralty Board and acting commander of the Fleet Navy. The negotiations with the geth have been terminated. The Navy is carrying out the last orders of the Admiralty Board. Contact your escorts for vectors and follow their instructions. Message repeats: This is Admiral Daro'Xen vas Moreh..."
"What the hell is going on out there?" As Xen's recorded message echoed throughout the chamber, Shepard looked as though he was ready to break Wylo over his knee as he cupped his hand over his ear to listen to his XO's report.
"We're outpacing them," Miranda said to Shepard over his comm, relayed from the Kodiak. "They're holding fire for now but that won't last long. We're putting as much distance possible between them and us."
"Keep going," Shepard said. "But don't let the hounds run you to the hunters!"
"Roger that. Commander, are we clear to engage?"
Shepard looked at Tali whose eyes were wide with shock. He looked away. "Do what it takes to defend yourself. Keep me updated as you can."
"Roger that, Shepard."
"We're secure here," Garrus replied. "The marines here have taken no action against us."
How long would that last, Shepard wondered, if the Normandy actively engaged the Migrant Fleet Navy? If quarians started dying in the gunsights of a Cerberus ship, the entire Flotilla would likely turn on them.
Captain Wylo held up a hand as he tried to shut out the pandemonium which had engulfed the Conclave chamber and listen to the Anba's bridge crew. Dozens of captains now swarmed the floor, hoping to use the High Officers' hard-line connections to contact their ships. Shepard could only hear half of Wylo's conversation. "Tell them to cease fire immediately! And why are we under way? We didn't give the order to move! What relocation order? Who authorized this?"
Who indeed? Shepard, Tali and Legion turned simultaneously toward the remaining member of the Admiralty Board but the spot where Xen stood was now occupied with captains trying to get to the High Officers. Xen and Platform Two was nowhere in sight.
"Shit," Shepard said and pushed his way through the throng of quarians. Taller than most, he looked over their helmeted heads for a sign of polished blue metal. The squad tactical display showed no sign of the blue geth. It was either out of range, or out of commission. "Blue! Blue, do you read me? Come in! Wylo! Captain Wylo! Lock down the ship! Wylo!"
More quarians pressed onto the stage, all shouting to be heard, the others choking the exits as they fought to get to the hangar decks to return to ships that were now streaming toward the relay without them. The entire quarian government body, minutes before seated peacefully, was now a panicked mob. Preventing anyone from leaving the Anba at this point was impossible. He pushed his way back to Wylo, ignoring the indignant cries of the quarian captains he shoved aside.
Under siege from quarians on all side, Wylo shouted to be heard. "The relocation order is invalid! Put the Vice Admiral of Naval Operations on, now!"
"Captain!" Shepard hoisted himself up on Wylo's elevated chair, above the crowd. "Lock down the ship! Xen's trying to get away!"
Wylo yelled, but not to Shepard. He had bigger problems to worry about. He waved to the other High Captains. "Contact your ships and your clans! Tell them to hold position! We are not moving! Comms, where's the Vice Admiral? Get him online now!"
Tali turned in small circles between Shepard and the raging mob. Whatever chance there had been of getting control of the situation was long gone. Xen's relocation order didn't specify the course the Migrant Fleet was to take, but it could only be one destination. The last remaining Admiral had simultaneously hijacked the peace negotiations and sent the Migrant Fleet on a suicide run while crippling the only body that could stop her. And now the Normandy was under attack by the Fleet Navy itself.
"Shepard-Commander," Legion said, looking up at Shepard. "We must locate and neutralize Platform Two."
"I know, Legion!" Shepard snapped. "Did you see which way they went?" He turned up his suit's on external speaker and looked across the surging crowd from his raised vantage point. "Did anyone see the blue geth leave the chamber?"
The Conclave ignored Shepard's plea for information. Tali blinked. The only hope of preventing the annihilation of the geth or outright war was to keep Xen from getting off the Anba. She climbed up next to Shepard on Wylo's platform and patched herself into the command console. The Conclave might be paralyzed, but she wasn't. "Security! There is a geth loose the ship, heading for the docking bays!" Wylo tried to push her away, but Shepard grabbed his arms and wrestled him back from her while Tali held onto the chair's armrest with all her might. "Outbreak, outbreak, outbreak!"
Xen led her science team down the corridor to the forward docking bay behind a phalanx of quarian marines without resistance. The sight of armed soldiers themselves would have been enough to clear the corridors in their path, but the blue geth platform walking amongst them would make even the bravest quarian think twice about approaching. The important part was escaping ahead of the chaos spilling from the Conclave chamber into the halls. Anyone trying to follow would have to push through a throng of a thousand of quarians.
"Creator-Admiral," Platform Two said. "Shepard-Commander is once again requesting our position and status."
"No response, Blue. You are not to transmit under any circumstances, understood?"
The docking bay was directly ahead. Only a few more steps, and they would be free. Or so Xen thought before the emergency bulkhead slammed shut in front of the column and a shrill alarm sounded that could make any quarian panic: geth outbreak.
The civilians trapped in the corridor scrambled to get as far from the geth as possible, with families and clan members trying to shield one another from the lone geth sealed in there with them. All throughout the ship, every compartment was now isolated with non-combatants seeking shelter, while every able-bodied quarian with a weapon would press toward the affected areas, bulkhead by bulkhead. Platform Two would be destroyed on sight, along with all the hopes of reclaiming the homeworld.
Xen raised her hands as she motioned her escort forward to the bulkhead. "Everyone stay calm. This is not an outbreak. This unit cannot hurt you. It is under our direct control. I guarantee my marines will keep you safe. Isn't that right, Lieutenant?"
"Yes, ma'am," Parrar said loudly, hefting his rifle. The sight of Fleet Marines always had a calming, reassuring affect on any ship. "You folks don't worry. The Admiral's got it well in hand."
Xen approached the security panel next to the bulkhead where a crowd of quarians parted to let her through. "Locked out," one of her team said. "No overrides except from the bridge."
"I don't think so," Xen brought up her omnitool and scanned the door's interface. "Rank has its privileges."
As she and her team worked on the door, Xen glanced over to see a quarian couple with their backs to the wall, their child behind them. She smiled at the young girl, who watched the geth with wide eyes. "Don't be frightened," Xen said. "It's just a machine. And soon, they won't be able hurt anyone ever again."
Wylo pulled away from Shepard, but only because Shepard let him go. He glared at Tali "Have you lost your mind? Get security in here! Now!" Wilo dropped to the floor and disappeared in the crowd.
Tali scanned the screens on Wylo's abandoned platform. "The ship is locked down, Shepard. But it won't last long. Xen will be able to override the lockout."
"She's in charge Special Projects. She wrote most of the network countermeasures in use today. She's quite the technician."
"Perfect," Shepard glanced around the chamber, where all of the remaining captains of the Conclave were trapped. "Can you get a fix on Blue?"
Tali tapped into the ship's live network feed where citizens on the ship could make reports to the bridge. Message after message reported a confirmation of the lockdown and request for further action. Then, she got a hit. "Section 002, one hatch aft of the docking bay. Geth sighted there just as the doors came down." She sent Shepard and Legion a copy of the alert, pinpointing it on the deck plan of the Anba. At least a dozen bulkheads and one hundred meters separated the forward compartments from the Conclave Chamber, with thousands of Conclave captains and civilians trapped in between. But there were many side passages.
Shepard's eyes flashed over the schematic. "What's the quickest way there?
"We'll never make it in time," Tali said. "Xen will be through in a matter of minutes. Our only hope is that Anba's security will be able to destroy Blue before they get to the shuttle."
"Garrus, do you read?" Shepard called over his comm, but even the link through Kasumi was now dead.
"Communications blocked," Legion said. "Standard creator procedure during outbreak scenarios. Station to station communications available over hard line connections only."
Shepard dropped back to the floor. "Then we've got to get back to the shuttle in case they get through. Tali, can you clear us a route?"
"STEP AWAY FROM THE PLATFORM!" the amplified command made everyone on the stage move away from the High Captain's chair. A squad of marines surrounded the Normandy crew, weapons leveled, with Wylo and several other High Captains behind them.
The guards yanked Tali from the elevated chair and she staggered back to be caught by Legion. Shepard turned to the soldiers, his hands held high. "No! Stop! Captain Wylo, Listen to me!"
"Remove them!" Wylo climbed up to his chair, killed Tali's connection to his console and punched the appropriate commands to regain control.
"Listen to me!" Shepard shouted. Without weapons, he only had words at his disposal. "Xen is about to attack the only ones the galaxy willing to help you, and there's no guarantee it will even work. If she fails, the geth will retaliate. You know that! They'll strike back, and this time they may not stop!"
Captain Fasha stepped from behind the screen of marines and pivoted around as she yelled to be heard over the commotion. "Then we should be helping her! If Xen succeeds the geth fall once and for all! We should be joining her, not fighting her!"
A loud cheer sounded from a full half of the captains still trapped in the chamber. Wylo looked to Captain Fasha, then down to the human, his quarian chief engineer and their geth crewmate.
"Move!" the lead quarian guard raised his rifle.
"Please!" Shepard shouted, looking up at Wylo. "The geth want peace. They want to end the war. You know it! That's why you came aboard the Normandy in the first place! You talked me into coming here, remember? You must have believed them! Or were you a part of Xen's plan from the start?"
Wylo's head snapped back to Shepard and the Normandy crew, surrounded now by Anba's security team. He had served nearly two decades on the High Council, with five years as High Captain. Never once had anyone questioned his integrity. But now, this human dared insult him on the deck of the quarian capitol, in front of all the remaining Captains. Shepard actually accused him of being in league with the rogue Admiral who had assumed control of the entire Fleet, forcing the first armed standoff in the history of the Conclave. How had everything gotten so far out of control?
He looked about the ring of the High Officers. Some, like Fasha, glared at the human, shouting for the marines to remove him. But others, even captain Mirron who asked the geth the questions they'd been waiting three centuries to ask, weren't looking at Shepard or even Legion. They were looking at him, waiting for an answer. It came down to a simple choice. Did he believe Xen's plan would lead them to victory? Or death?
He looked at the trio below his chair; a human, a geth, and a quarian together, facing down the barrels of a dozen weapons pointed at their heads. He closed his eyes and sighed. "Sergeant at Arms."
"Sir," a quarian woman in an ornate golden environment suit stepped forward.
"Take charge of the security detail and escort Shepard and his crew back to their shuttle." Wylo punched at his command console, ignoring the angry objectors around him. "Do it quickly. I'll clear the central corridor ahead of you."
"Aye, sir!" The Sergeant at Arms turned to Shepard. "Commander?"
Time was of the essence, but Shepard paused just long enough to give the quarian captain a nod. "Thank you, Captain."
Wylo only stared down at his console. His decision, correct or not, might not make any difference. "She's made it to the docking bay. You'd better hurry."
The Admiral's docking bay was designed to hold the personal runabouts for the Admiralty Board. Now, only one occupied the hangar. Another small ship docked next to Xen's, the Littano, had delivered her marines and science team. Both were powered and prepped for departure.
"They're going to come after me," Xen told Lieutenant Parrar. "Wait until we're underway, then make directly for the relay. A vanguard is holding it until the rest of the the heavy fleet is in position for transit, but they'll let you through with the first wave."
"Aye, Admiral." Parrar and his detail stopped in front of the larger of the two ships.
"Creator-Admiral," Platform Two said. "Shepard-Commander repeats his request for our position and status."
"You will not transmit," Xen said. "As a matter of fact, now that we're here, I'd like you to power down now."
"Of course, Creator-Admiral," the geth said. The lights on its face faded and its head slumped in front of its chest.
"Good night, Blue," Xen caressed the side of its neck. "When you wake up, we'll all be home. Take it aboard."
Lieutenant Parrar stood at attention as his soldiers carried the deactivated geth up the Littano's cargo ramp. "Keelah se'lai, Admiral."
Xen smiled sadly. Keelah se'lai... By the home world I hope to see some day. Even without her body consumed by infection, her chance of seeing Rannoch after her next encounter with Commander Shepard and his crew was not promising. But it didn't matter as long as Parrar made it to is destination with his cargo intact. She bowed her head as much from exhaustion as anything. "Lead them home, Lieutenant. Get moving."
Joker should have been thrilled to see the empty patch of space in front of the Normandy, but he wasn't. The ships of the Migrant Fleet were both the Normandy's worst enemy and its best defense. While every turn risked a collision with another quarian ship, the pursuing quarian task force wasn't about to risk hitting one of their own vessels to take out the Normandy. And the number of ships in the chase increased with every passing minute. Time was running out.
Worse, the Normandy was approaching the picket ships at the edge for fleet, meaning another dozen ships were closing from in front. Shepard had been right... Hounds to the hunters.
"Prepare to engage stealth systems," Miranda said. "Begin jump calculations."
"They'll still have visual," Joker said. "From, like... every direction!"
"Can't be helped," Miranda knew that long before she gave the order. If they couldn't throw off the quarians before they egressed, they were finished. Thanks to the upgrades over the past year, Normandy could take on five or six of the quarian Navy's finest ships, but four times that number were tracking them, with more vectoring in. Opening fire with the Thanix would have been the best bet, but the danger of hitting vessels beyond any target made that impossible. At least the quarians had been similarly careful. But now that the fleet was thinning, the quarians smelled blood and had the numbers to draw it.
Not without a fight, Miranda thought. What was going to happen once Normandy fired, she wondered? So far, only the Migrant Fleet Navy was involved. What if every contact on the board turned hostile at once? What of Shepard and the rest of the squad on the Anba? When news that another Cerberus ship attacked the quarian Navy, wWhat would happen to all of them? What other choice did they have? "EDI, target vessels in front of us and along our vector and prepare to engage. Joker, power to maximum as soon as we're clear."
Captain Borsha'Yon vas Sabbine's eyes flashed back and forth between her tactical display and the weapons panel. Her cruiser's armaments were easily the match of any Council ship, her crew amongst the best in the entire Navy. Now she and the eleven ships in her squadron raced toward the Normandy, about to emerge from the retreating Migrant Fleet.
"I give them credit," she said to the bridge crew as the countdown to fire ticked closer to zero. "They're not trying to hide behind our ships."
"Or holding them hostage," her XO said. "Time to target fifteen seconds."
"Stand by to fire," Borsha'Yon said over the squadron link.
"Bridge, Comms! Priority traffic from the High Officers of the Conclave, ordering us to break off the attack. Repeat, we are to disengage the Normandy! Sounds like they're going crazy over there."
The XO watched his captain as the seconds ticked down. "Ma'am?"
Borsha'Yon gripped her armrests as her envirosuit compensators all kicked to their max settings to offset her body's sudden rise in pulse and temperature. The order from the last living Admiral of the Board was to destroy the Normandy. But the civilian officers of the Conclave were countermanding that order.
"Ten seconds. Orders, Captain?"
"This is High Captain Kanna'Wylo vas Tundon," the Conclave was now broadcasting in the clear. "The Normandy has been wrongfully identified as an enemy of the Fleet by Daro'Xen vas Moreh. Daro'Xen has been stripped of her command by this body and no longer has legitimate authority in this fleet. Any orders passed down from her through Fleet Command are invalid. Do not engage! Acknowledge!"
The weapons officer's targeting reticle changed to green. "Target now outside of Migrant Fleet envelope. We have a clear shot!"
"Ma'am!" the XO rose from his seat.
"Hold fire," Borsha'Yon held up her hand. "Signal the squadron to hold fire!"
The Sabbine's gunnery officer moved his finger away from the trigger, a move that was recreated simultaneously across a dozen ships closing on the Cerberus ship. He might not have agreed with the decision, but orders were orders. All he could do was watch as the Normandy's distance grew greater with every passing second.
"Quarian targeting systems have disengaged," EDI announced.
"And they're veering off," Joker added, sweat dripping from his brow.
Miranda watched a series of lines resolve on her screen, as the quarian ships in their path took an evasive course to the side. Behind, the pursuing quarian ships slowed. Reprieve or no, sandwiched between two quarian fleets was not where she wanted to be. "Go dark and punch it, Joker! Before they change their minds!"
The starfield outside the cockpit window shifted blue as the Normandy streaked away into the darkness.
"Heavy traffic today," Rolston deftly jetted the Kodiak down the river of quarian ships streaming toward the Raheel-Leyya relay. Their target, Xen's flagship Moreh, stayed far off the main line of advance, forcing Rolston to weave through dozens of ships to avoid collision as they approached. Xen's shuttle had escaped and docked with the Moreh even before the Kodiak was able to launch.
Shepard watched the Anba's blocky form disappear from the side window. The ship had an impressive array of defensive weapons, but no matter how much he pleaded with the High Captain during their sprint to the shuttle, Shepard could not convince Wylo to bring down Xen's runabout after it launched. No quarian would attack an Admiral's ship, especially not one held in as high regard as Xen.
Shepard might not be happy about that, but had to be grateful that Wylo halted the attack on the Normandy. Even though direct conflict had been avoided, the Normandy had been chased a good distance away, and would certainly be fired upon if it approached again. Mobile Platform Three had not been so lucky, having been destroyed during Anba's premeditated communication failure, a necessary move to prevent the geth from learning about the coming assault. So for now, the Kodiak was on its own.
Though Xen had been stripped of her rank, it was obvious that a large percentage of the Navy was still following her to the relay. The promise of retaking the homeworld was too much for crews who had trained their whole lives for that mission to give up. It was the mission every quarian soldier lived for. And they weren't alone. Where the military fleet went, so did the civilian ships. In this part of the Terminus, there was no one to protect them, and they would be welcome nowhere.
Shepard looked over his shoulder into the crew compartment where eight of the most dangerous fighters in known space were gearing up for boarding action. Tali had pulled up what schematics she had on the Moreh, one of the few ships in the Migrant Fleet that had kept its original purpose since launch. Long and tubular, draped with sensor arrays and dishes, it had been a premiere long range exploration vessel in its prime. Now, some four thousand quarians lived aboard, conducting research that was to someday bring their people home. How many of them were armed combatants? How many of them would fight, and die, to protect Xen's prize?
"This is going to be a slaughter," Shepard said. Though he couldn't see it, Tali looked up from her seat on the shuttle's aft bench, eyes filled with equal measures of horror and sadness.
"Look on the bright side," Rolston said, pointing to the sensor display. The Moreh, like the rest of the Migrant Fleet, steamed towards the relay surrounded by a security picket that made the one around the Anba look positively pathetic. "We may not even get close enough to dock. The approach is gonna be hairy, sir."
Shepard winced at the space around them grew even more crowded. "How's your barnstorming?"
"Guess we'll find out," Rolston said. "We're about to enter their sensor envelope. Prepare for extreme maneuvers. It's gonna be hairy. Real hairy. Just sayin'"
"Everybody strap in," Shepard shouted over his shoulder and took the co-pilot's seat.
"Woah," Rolston winced at a flare of light on the long-range sensor display. The transponders of a group of quarian ships disappeared. "Spike in mass effect emissions at the relay. Jesus, look at that wave, close to a million tonnes! Must have been a hundred ships..."
"Beachhead. Their job is to secure the transit point at the next relay." But Moreh's blip, and the blips of her escorts, were still far out of range of the relay. "How we doing?"
"Holding steady on course. We're still closing."
Shepard scowled at the display. Xen held the key to the geth collective in the palm of her two-fingered hand, and in order for it to be a surprise, she would need to get it through the relay as quickly as possible. Waiting for any reason would give the geth more time to recognize the danger and react, or for the Normandy crew to retaliate. Yet quarian ships had already begun their transit without the Moreh.
"Nice of her to wait for us," Rolston said.
"That's not a word I'd use to describe her. How long to intercept?"
"Two minutes, thirty seconds."
And still, the Moreh and her picket ships still maintained course.
"Break off the approach," Shepard said.
"Get us out of the pattern. Do it!"
"Aye!" Rolston found a clear vector on his screens and began threading the Kodiak toward open space.
"Shepard," Garrus's voice drifted from behind. "What's going on?"
"They are waiting for us," Shepard said. "Xen knew we'd follow. She knew it. She got Blue out on another ship in that first wave. They're already gone." He slammed the console in front of him, making Rolston jump. "Normandy, this is Shepard. Send us your position. We lost Platform Two. We're coming in."
From the aft bench of the crew compartment came a long, low buzz. All the members of the squad turned to look at Legion. It contorted in its chair, hands clenching and unclenching, its face plates and aperture trying to work in six different directions at once as all of its processes diverted their runtimes to solving this new problem to the point control over the physical platform was lost. "Request allied assistance," Legion said.
Tali, sitting next to the geth, put her hand on its leg. "I'm sorry, Legion."
Xen stepped into the Moreh's docking bay, a spring in her step that had nothing to do with her newly-attached prosthetic leg. She smiled warmly as her XO strode up to the hatch to meet her.
"Admiral," Rundan said, saluting. "Welcome aboard."
Xen kept walking and Rundan fell in step next to her. "I never thought I'd walk this deck again. I was sure the Normandy was waiting to swoop in to blow me out of the stars!"
"The Navy might not have carried out your orders to destroy it, but they certainly were effective in driving it away."
"And what of Shepard's shuttle?" Xen put her hand on Rundan's chest. Commander Shepard and his legendary squad of miscreants would have been no match for the guns of the naval escorts. "Were they destroyed?"
"No," Rundan said. "They veered off before coming into range."
"Damn it! Where are they now?"
"They jumped away, presumably to rendezvous with the Normandy."
"I see," Xen started walking again. The crew, packed in the corridor, all stood aside to let their captain pass. They reached the lift to take them to the bridge. "What about the Littano?"
Rundan smiled behind his mask. "Transited the relay with the vanguard and are now en-route to the injection point."
"Good, good..." The lift doors opened onto the Moreh's bridge, a cramped, but clean deck filled with the highest quality consoles and components found anywhere in the fleet. The entire bridge crew stood, but not at attention. They were too busy cheering.
"That's enough," Xen barked, and her crew immediately returned to their stations. She felt bad for dashing their enthusiasm. So far everything had worked better than she expected. Why shouldn't she allow for celebration? Was it because of the breach in bridge protocol? No, it was because she knew the Normandy and her captain were still out there. And until the geth were fully, finally under quarian control, there was no limit to what he would do to stop her.
Hand over hand, Shepard pulled himself back to the Kodiak's crew compartment utilizing the hand grips in the shuttle's ceiling. The entire squad was silent. Ordinarily, there was some kind of chatter going on. Who was going to take down the most targets? Who was going to wind up saving whose ass? Who was going to come back without a firing a shot, earning the shameful official Normandy "REMF" trophy for the mission, consisting of a model of the Citadel fabricated inside an empty rotgut bottle?
No one said anything. The Normandy crew had never retreated from battle. Krogan, asari, turian, human and quarian eyes all watched him. Only Legion did not, because it was physically and programmatically incapable of doing so.
"Legion," Shepard said. When the geth did not respond, he leaned over it and tried again. "Legion! I need you to focus."
The geth platform still shuddered in its seat, but enough of its runtimes coordinated to steady its main camera. "Ready for inquiry."
"The heretic virus. How does it work? Can Xen infect the collective through the relay?"
"Negative. Remote security protocol sufficient to halt delivery over remote connections. Virus requires direct network access to a geth hub in order to spread."
"A hub. Like the one at the heretic station?"
"The heretic station is gone. So where else could they take it?" Shepard watched Legion go through a series of contortions in its seat. "Talk to me. Where's the most likely place Xen would go?"
Tali grabbed hold of Legion's hand. She could feel its tremors through her gloves, her own heart pounding. "Come on, Legion. Where would Xen go? Rannoch? The geth megastructure you told us about? Where's the best place for her to infect the geth network?"
"Geth primary hubs located in two sectors, three systems," Legion sputtered. "Far Rim: Dholen, Ma-at. Perseus veil: Tikkun. Hubs at Dholen and Tikkun heavily patrolled due to presence of mass relays in system along projected invasion route by Creator forces. Ma-at hub undergoing reduction in geth presence and eventual decommissioning as relocation to megastructure progresses."
Shepard stood upright. "The hub at Ma-at is not as heavily defended?"
"That's the one then," Shepard said, looking between Tali and Legion. "It makes perfect sense. The main quarian fleet drives on to the Tikkun relay, drawing out geth defenses, like they're planning an assault on Rannoch. But a few ships might be able split off at Dholen in the confusion, and get to Ma-at."
"And they infect the hub in the other direction," Tali continued, "and the entire geth network."
Shepard nodded. "And take Rannoch without firing a shot." He looked down at Tali and Legion, at the quarian holding the hand of a geth, trying to comfort a machine that was about to shake itself apart because its internal processes were on the verge of burning themselves out.
"Request allied assistance," the geth repeated.
Shepard knelt in front of Legion so its camera was pointed at his face. "Listen to me. We're not finished yet. We're going to Ma-at."
Legion's processes resumed normal functions in unison and the platform returned to normal function. "Thank you, Shepard- Commander."
"How?" Tali asked. "The Migrant Fleet has control of the space around the relay. They're sending thousands of ships through. We won't be able to get close enough to enter the pattern, let alone transit. Even if we get through, every relay between here and Rannoch will be jammed up."
Shepard stood and turned back to the cockpit, his hand over his ear. "Normandy, this is Shepard."
"Go ahead, Commander," Miranda responded.
"EDI," Shepard said. "Access Mordin's records. All of his research from the Collector Base and the reaper IFF."
"I have full access, Shepard," EDI said.
"Are there any other relays in the Vahallan Threshold? Uncharted, like the one the Vellius found at Sahrabarik?"
"Mordin's research indicates the presence of primary relays in both the Paz and Micah systems."
All of the members of the squad cast cautious glances toward one another.
Shepard began to pace. "Keep looking. I need you to project a plot using all relays, including the ones in the report. Can any of us get us to the system of Ma-At, in the Far Rim?"
Garrus unclasped his restraints and climbed to his feet. "Wait. What are you thinking about doing, Shepard?"
Shepard waved Garrus off. "EDI, Extrapolate from Mordin's research. Can either of them get us to Ma-at?"
"Affirmative, Shepard. The Paz relay can reach Ma-at with only one additional transit."
Miranda's voice broke in. "It's a direct link to Ma-at after the first jump. We'll bypass Dholen completely. Given their head start, we might not be able to beat them-"
Shepard nodded. "But we might be able to catch up. Where's the intermediary relay?" A render of the galaxy map appeared on Shepard's heads-up display, transmitted by EDI from the Normandy. The connecting relay was in the outer spiral arm between the Rosetta Nebula and the Far Rim, tens of thousands of light years from any explored space.
EDI confirmed Shepard's suspicion. "The location of the target relay has no known correlation in any Alliance, Citadel, or Cerberus database."
"Shepard," Garrus said, "You can't be serious. We don't know what's out there. We don't know what's on the other side. It could be rachni. It could be collectors. It could be reapers. Or worse!"
Shepard scowled. "Since when did you turn into a turian?"
Garrus actually looked hurt. "We can't..."
"Miranda," Shepard turned toward the cockpit. "Coordinate with Rolston for a rendezvous, and as soon as we're aboard make for the Paz relay, maximum velocity. Then prep the ship for transit."
"Aye, Commander," Miranda said.
Tali watched the exchange in silence. Garrus was the last person Shepard would ever shut down like that, and under any other circumstance she would have leapt at the opportunity to rub it in the turian's half-face. Instead, she stayed in her seat and continued to hold Legion's hand. It looked back at her. "It's going to be okay," Tali said, falling back on behavior as old as organic life itself, offering assurance to those who needed it most, regardless of whether or not it was true. And, as anyone did when speaking that ancient vow that transcended species throughout existence, Tali wondered if there was any truth to it.
Alert: Loss of signal with Mobile Platform Two.
Alert: Loss of signal with Mobile Platform Three.
Alert: Loss of signal with Normandy.
Assessment: Loss of signal with Mobile Platform Two preceded loss of signal with Mobile Platform Three. Probability of simultaneous malfunction of both platforms in given timeframe negligible.
Assessment: Simultaneous loss of signal event indicative of intentional disruption of communication by Creators.
Formulating Consensus... Consensus achieved.
Directive: Continue monitoring of organic relay traffic in associated relays.
Alert: Creator vessels detected, Sahabarik Relay, Omega Nebula.
Assessment: Quantity of Creator ships: 58. Composition of Creator fleet: 13 cruiser class, 21 frigate class, 18 support/tender, 6 miscellaneous/unidentified.
Assessment: Composition and emission signatures consistent with Migrant Fleet 12th Battle Group, 3rd Navy
Assessment: Migrant Fleet 3rd Navy interdicting relay traffic, Sahrabarik System.
Assessment: Migrant Fleet relocation imminent.
Alert: Second Creator Battle Group detected, Sahrabarik Relay.
Alert: Third Creator Battle Group detected, Sahrabarik Relay.
Alert: Fourth Creator Battle Group detected, Sahrabarik Relay.
Assessment: Large concentration of military vessels inconsistent with observed Creator Migrant Fleet relocation patterns.
Assessment: Probability of long-term relocation of Migrant Fleet to Omega Nebula: 0%.
Assessment: Creator Fleet preparing for sustained combat operations.
Formulating Consensus... Consensus achieved.
Directive: Observe direction of Migrant Fleet movement.
Alert: Creator battle group detected Nariph Relay, Pylos Nebula.
Assessment: Migrant Fleet Navy intends encroachment beyond Perseus Veil.
Assessment: Composition of Creator Fleet consistent with large scale planetary invasion force. Creator fleets deploying with intention to retake Creator homeworld by force.
Assessment: Negotiations with Creators have failed.
Assessment: Loss of signal result of intentional destruction of Mobile Platform Two, Mobile Platform Three, Normandy Collective.
Formulating Consensus... Consensus achieved.
Directive: Immediate cessation of construction of Liveship Four
Directive: Immediate cessation of harvest of Creator crops to sustain Creator population during interim period prior to Liveship Four achieving full production capacity.
Directive: Immediate re-tasking of all physical platforms for combat operations.
Collective Query: Objective of combat operations.
Formulating Consensus... Consensus achieved.
Directive: Reroute all combat platforms to Creator homeworld.Directive: Eliminate Creator threat to geth collective.