"Transit complete," EDI's voice echoed through the engineering compartment. Tali stared at her control panel, waiting for a pair of indicators to light green. Both flashed on at the same time, triggered by Legion and Gabby to confirm normal status on their own boards. As her main display showed no alerts, she pressed her own key that would illuminate a similar indicator in the cockpit that all was well in Engineering.
Almost immediately after, Joker's inputs required full power from the reactors and thrusters. Navigation and Science were also requesting max power for the sensors as the ship got underway, but weapons remained at standby levels, so Tali relaxed, but only slightly.
"Engineering, Conn," Shepard said. "How're we looking?"
Tali shook her head. Even though all Shepard had to do was look at his status screens, he sometimes called down for a verbal confirmation after transiting a relay. Considering the ship had just jumped through an uncharted relay and they were deep in unknown space, it was understandable this time. Not that she ever ever minded hearing from Shepard anyway..."Board's in the green, Commander. Ready for the next transit."
"Position of connector relay confirmed," EDI said. "Arrival in sixteen minutes, eleven seconds, with transit to Ma-at to follow."
"I guess it worked," Gabby said. "Wonder where we are, what's out there?"
"I don't know," Tali said. In all honesty, she didn't care. In the next few hours, the fate of both the quarians and geth would be decided. She looked at Legion as the geth silently minded ts panels. Legion's processes were apparently satisfied by Shepard's plan, showing none of the internal discord it experienced earlier. It was her human assistant who needed reassurance now, shifting side to side on her feet. Tali knew how to fix that. She keyed the intercom. "Garrus, what's it look like out there?"
The turian sounded awed, which for Garrus really meant he saw something spectacular enough to make the jaded soldier search for the right words. "It's unbelievable, Tali. It's going to change everything we know, from now on. It's incredible! I'll send you a feed."
"Really?" For an instant, Tali forgot about the geth. She and Gabby both excitedly fired up video feeds from Garrus's gun cameras. An empty black rectangle filled their screens filled with a scattering of stars. She squinted and leaned forward for a closer look. "I don't see anything."
"Wait, let me adjust the zoom."
The black rectangle shimmered and resolved into another black rectangle with a different pattern of stars.
"You sure? Let me switch to wide angle..."
Another black rectangle filled the frame. Gabby closed her eyes. "There's nothing out there."
"Hold on, hold on. Keep looking. Switching to infra-red..."
Tali looked up at the ceiling and shouted. "If there's nothing out there you could have said that at the start!"
"There is something, Tali. You just have to keep looking. Here, take a look at this one..."
Upon seeing yet another empty view of space, Tali slapped the console to cut the connection. "Bosh'tet."
"He is such a dick," Gabby said. "I swear if he ever comes down here I'm gonna jam his spiked head right into the slag hopper. Who's with me? Legion? Boss?"
Tali still watched Legion, who did not react to Gabby's question. After Legion's surprising ambush of Garrus over Fleet and Flotilla, Tali looked forward to seeing what else the geth might come up with to humiliate the turian. But the geth said nothing, not even a standard acknowledgement that it had heard.
"Legion?" Gabby tried again, her smile fading. "Hey, you okay?"
The geth looked at Tali. "This unit has a query."
Tali blinked. It had been some time since Legion spoke with such formality, requesting permission to ask a question. "Go ahead."
"If the creators have successfully infected the collective before we arrive at Ma-at, what is our course of action?"
Tali opened her mouth but no words escaped as both Legion and Gabby looked at her from across the aisle. Aside from the meaning of our referring to its plural sense of self or the Normandy crew as a whole, she didn't know what the plan was if they failed to stop the quarians from delivering the virus.
"Don't worry, Legion," Gabby said. "The Commander's got it figured out. He always does, doesn't he? And you got all of us backing him up, so what can go wrong?"
Legion continued to watch Tali, who found herself looking back at her console. She punched up status displays in an effort to appear busy, but it was a question she'd been asking herself since they had returned from the Anba. If they managed to stop Xen, that only meant the geth were spared defeat. The quarian Navy would still assault Tikkun in a suicide run that would cripple the Migrant Fleet unless she and Shepard could somehow convince them not to. And nothing up to this point, not the geth appearance before the Conclave, the death of the Admiralty Board, or even the destruction of the Rayya had dissuaded them thus far. War seemed inevitable at this point.
And if Xen did succeed? The war would be over. The Migrant Fleet would jump ahead to join the Navy at Rannoch, to home, unopposed. The quarians would be saved. In fact, out of all possible outcomes, it was only if Xen's virus worked that the survival of the Migrant Fleet was guaranteed.
But what then? Would Commander Shepard fight to free the geth? How would the Citadel react to the quarians repossessing their AI servants? Worse, would the geth themselves eventually rebel once more? If they ever got the upper hand again, would they stop the slaughter a second time, or fight to the death? Xen's plan might end one war, but no matter what happened, another would be forever looming around the corner.
The only way the cycle could be stopped for certain was if Xen chose to destroy the geth outright. There would be no chance of retaliation or future rebellion. The best way, the only way to ensure peace was if Legion's kind was eradicated. That the geth didn't deserve it didn't matter. Would the Citadel or anyone else interfere if the quarians solved the problem they created three hundred years ago? Probably not.
The only ones who would truly care would be Legion and its friends on the Normandy, especially Commander Shepard. He would do everything in his power to save the geth. Tali looked over at the silent mech, who still watched her with its bright white eye. She tried to push those thoughts from her mind, but she couldn't. "I don't know, Legion," Tali said. "I really don't. Let's just hope that it doesn't come to that, okay? The best we can do is get the reactors ready for the next transit."
"Acknowledged," Legion said and turned back to its panels.
Tali ran through all her screens once more, hunting for the slightest change in status on any reading. It was unnecessary given any deviation would show instantly on the main holo, but it was the only way to keep her mind from returning to the hope that when they reached Ma-at, any decision about what to do would be made before they got there.
"Approaching Ma-at rendezvous," the XO's echoed voice Moreh's PA system. "Deceleration to sublight in one minute. All stations stand by."
Daro'Xen sat back in her chair on the bridge and closed her burning eyes. Ever since splitting off from the main body of the fleet at Dholen she had been pouring over captured data from the newly decrypted geth network. She left the senior Vice Admirals in charge of the Navy while she and her personal task force streaked off to join the injection team at Ma-at. Though she was now the ranking officer of the entire Fleet, she was no military leader. War was best left to the warriors. Xen's talents were needed elsewhere to ensure the invasion succeeded.
The blue haze beyond the portholes faded as the Moreh decelerated, with space soon returning to a deep black. Xen marveled at the elegance of it all: a half dozen ships of different tonnages all hurtling through interstellar space while both the origin and destination swirled in orbit about the galactic center at the same time. Mathematics was truly the base code in which the entire universe was written.
"Confirm acquisition of signal," Captain Rundan said. "All ships accounted for."
"Good," Xen looked at her status panel. All six escorts maneuvered into formation around Moreh. "How long until rendezvous?"
"Thirty seconds," the XO said.
"Hail the Litanno," Xen said. The rendezvous point was little more than a converted cargo module in a wide polar orbit about Ma-at, used as a listening post to record geth network activity in the system. Though the Moreh had been delayed after drawing off the Normandy at Raheel-Leyya, they weren't so late that the injection team would have already proceeded to the geth hub. "Let them know we made it after all."
"Yes ma'am," Rundan said with a smile and passed the order to his communication officer.
"No response," the comms officer replied.
"Approaching the rendezvous," said the XO. "Negative contact."
"What about the beacon?" Xen stood from her chair. If nothing else, the transponder on the listening post should have responded to a coded query.
"Repeating interrogation. No response."
"Get us in closer," Xen said. Her insides already burning from sepsis, Xen's stomach boiled with each passing second with no contact from the injection team. This far out, there was no way the geth could have found what amounted to a single mote of dust in the vastness of space, unless someone had been careless... and this mission was far too important for any quarian to make a mistake.
Passive sensors and cameras swept the blackness. One finally locked on something and transmitted its augmented low-light image to their screens. A patch of glitter twinkled in the dark. Debris. As the ships drew closer, more detail and shapes became visible. The dark hulks of a half dozen ships tumbled in the void, surrounded by halos of shattered hull plating.
Rundan's voice was a whisper. "It's not possible."
Xen fought the urge to shoot down Rundan's pointless observation. "Scan the wreckage! Find the Litanno!"
Sensor techs from all the ships in Xen's task force reported the names of the ships as they were discovered. The Pal Tino, the Fennamore, The Bonche 263... all ships assigned to protect the Litanno and it's precious cargo, all blasted to shrapnel. The listening post itself had also been blown to pieces.
"Deploy salvage parties," Xen shouted, her heart pounding. "Do it now! Board and search for sensor logs! Anything! Find out what happened!" She checked the ship's chronometer. The Fleet Navy would be advancing on Rannoch within the hour. If the Litanno and Platform Two weren't found before then...
"I've got something," the sensor tech said. "Another debris field."
"What? Is it the Litanno?"
"Negative. It's not ours. I don't know whose it is."
Rundan stared at the display. "Geth?"
"Still scanning," the tech said.
"Bring the wreckage aboard if you have to," Xen shouted. "But find out what it is! Find the Litanno!"
"Transit complete," EDI announced. All around the cockpit, the organic crew of the Normandy let out a collective sigh of relief.
Shepard peered out the top window and saw a comforting black dotted lighted jewels. "Where are we?"
"Stand by, astronomical fix in progress. Stellar position fixed to 99.997% accuracy. We have arrived at the system of Ma-at. Correlating stellar and planetary orbits. We are approximately eight AU from the stellar core, eleven degrees off the ecliptic."
Shepard leaned over Joker's shoulder to scan the system display as EDI plotted their position. This far out, without a comm buoy, it could take up to an hour for a regular EM transmission to reach the geth. "Which is closer? The asteroid hub or Ammut?"
"Ammut," EDI said. "The asteroid is in opposition from our current position."
"Max V to Ammut, Joker. Hit it!"
"You got it, Commander!" The starscape shifted blue even before Joker finished his first word.
"Ah, just under one minute."
"One minute," Shepard repeated. "What's the earliest the quarians could have gotten here?"
Miranda kept her voice neutral. "forty-one minutes and counting if they didn't run into any opposition."
"Dammit. Don't worry about getting pulled over, Joker. And when we get there, plot a reverse course back to the relay, just in case they're no longer friendly."
"And EDI? Make sure our geth on board are completely isolated from all transmissions. We don't want them catching anything if we're too late."
In the forward windows, a bright blue dot swelled into a thin crescent. Joker flipped the ship nose over tail and aimed the Normandy's engines toward the gas giant to brake. Shepard waited as the relative velocity indicator dropped, then eventually flashed sublight. Communications would now be instantaneous, at least in organic terms.
Joker lowered the Normandy toward a high orbit around the rocky, white-frosted orb of one of Ammut's moons. The brown and green striped crescent of Ammut dominated the sky beyond.
"This is Commander Shepard of the Normandy, calling any geth. Do you read?"
"Shepard-Commander," the synthesized voice's response was immediate, but the speech rate accelerated to the point where it almost sounded excited. "Scans positive for identification. Vessel signature and vocal analysis confirmed. We are relieved at your return. We were unable to ascertain the the disposition of the Normandy subsequent to the loss of signal at Raheel-Leyya. Request status. Do you require assistance?"
"Sounds like they're okay," Joker said.
Shepard patted Joker on his shoulder and let out a sigh of relief. "Maintain orbit." Outside the window, a gargantuan plateau made of scaffolding, tanks and tubing rose from the horizon of the moon. Hundreds of geth platforms jetted around in all directions, transporting fuel and resources above the largest single processing facility Shepard had ever seen.
"We're fine," he told the geth. "Listen, terminate all contact with the hub on Orbital Body 413319 and Platform Two immediately. Quarantine them both."
"Request clarification, Shepard-Commander."
There's no time to explain, Shepard was about to say, but dealing with geth he knew he would have to anyway. "Platform Two is compromised. The quarians have modified the heretic virus and are planning to inject it via Platform Two at that hub. You have to terminate all contact right now."
"Unnecessary," the geth said. "The Creator threat in this system has been neutralized."
"No, wait. The quarians have been watching that hub for weeks, waiting to make their move. They sent the ship containing the virus in front of the invasion force. It might already be here."
"Shepard-Commander, you are referring to the Creator vessel Litanno? Accompanied by escort ships Bonche 263, Dazzra,Fennamore, Lowas, and Pal Tino."
Miranda looked up from her console. "They must have gotten them already."
Shepard nodded. "Litanno, that's the one. Are you saying you destroyed it?"
"The escort vessels were destroyed. The Litanno has been secured. Platform Two has been recovered. Details to follow."
"I knew it," Joker said with a laugh. "We rushed all the way out here for nothing."
"We still have to stop the quarians from moving on Rannoch," Shepard said. He keyed the transmitter again. "That's great news... We were afraid we were too late."
"Negative. Creator aggression in this system has been neutralized. However, the Creator Navy is still massing at the Dholen Relay for attack."
"We know. I've got a plan to convince them not not to strike. But we need your help."
"Stand by," the geth said. "This will require approval by Human Prime."
Shepard looked over to Miranda, whose face reflected the same shocked expression at the unknown phrase. But before he could say anything, the voice transmission window on Shepard's console expanded to show a human face staring back with glowing blue eyes.
"Commander Shepard," The Illusive Man said, "This is quite unexpected. Though at the same time, I can't say I'm completely surprised. You never fail to impress. Before we go any further, I must caution you that the geth will destroy the Normandy should you cut this feed or if Mister Moreau attempts to alter your course. Do not test them. They are remarkably efficient."
The sensor displays now showed dozens of geth ships sliding into orbit around the Normandy. It took a moment for all of it to register with Shepard. Then, a cog slipped into place in a mental chain of gears, and they all began to spin in unison. Everything now made sense; the Illusive Man's passion for keeping the negotiations going when no one else wanted to. His enthusiasm for the Normandy to succeed, playing off Shepard's own distrust of the Council and desire to bring the warring factions together. And most of all, the destruction of the Rayya. Everything had been carefully engineered so that Shepard would deliver the one geth platform capable of deploying the virus to Raheel-Leyya.
And even though the geth collective reacted in a friendly way, they were obviously under Cerberus control. The amount of shipping traffic around the moon was staggering. How many of the geth ships were armed? How would the Normandy fare against a fleet of hundreds that could coordinate as one?
Shepard struggled to come up with the most basic solution. The only obvious one would quickly lead to their demise, and he could hardly issue orders without the Illusive Man hearing or seeing it as long as the feed stayed live. But from the corner of his eye, orbital trajectories and escape vectors started appearing on his screen. Joker always knew to keep tabs on the way out. But with the gas giant ahead, the Normandy would have to slingshot around the moon before it could jump freely without running the risk of collision. Then, if they could make it back to the relay, the geth would be unable to follow.
He just needed to stall for time. "Human Prime. That has a nice ring to it."
"It wasn't my idea," said the Illusive Man. "It was bestowed upon me by the geth, though I don't know if I will keep it. It's a bit ostentatious for my taste."
"Yeah, good luck with that. The geth are pretty set in their ways when it comes to names."
The Illusive man smirked. "It's amazing what one can accomplish when one has the proper access, combined with the conviction to do what needs to be done. This is a great day for humanity, even if you choose not to see it."
Shepard shook his head. From the corner of his eye he could see both Miranda and Joker working furiously at their consoles. Action indicators flashed ready for stations throughout the ship, except for weapons and propulsion which were on stand-by for power-up. Externally, the Normandy continued quietly on its track around the moon, now with dozens of geth ships on parallel courses, and who knows how many weapons tracking them from the surface.
The Illusive Man took a draw of his cigarette. "Commander, I want you to listen to me. More important, I want you to understand. If I hadn't intervened, the quarians would be in control of geth right now, not us. And you can bet that they would be trying to kill you, as they did at Dashta."
"Or you, with that little welcoming party you set up for us at Raheel-Layya."
"Which you obviously anticipated and avoided. No doubt Miranda's doing." The Illusive Man's eyes fell. "That was a mistake on my part. I admit that freely. For what it's worth, it was not a decision I made lightly or with malice. In fact, it was done with great reluctance given everything you and your crew have done for us."
"Thanks. That means a lot to me."
The Illusive Man ignored Shepard's sarcastic tone. "But circumstances have changed. I have what I need now. I'm offering my apology as well as a second chance, when all I would have to do to otherwise is give the order to finish you. That should count for something."
"A second chance for what?"
"Another partnership. You and I, together, have done more to protect this galaxy in one year than all the other species combined, perhaps going back to the very first time the reapers arrived. I have the vision and the resources, but you have the strength. And I don't just mean your considerable skills at decimating your foes, but your ability to bring them together, to rally them to your cause. It's the reason I brought you back. It's the reason the collectors were stopped. And it's the reason I'm talking to you now. You have to admit, acting in concert, we are a potent force. One that could give rise to the first galactic civilization in millions of years to break the cycle of extinction, with humanity at its apex. Only one thing stands in our way. And we can defeat them. If we work together."
"As equal partners, right? Just like before?"
"I think you know as well as I do that such an arrangement is no longer practical. I'm afraid I would have to exert a little more operational authority in any of our future endeavors."
"You really think I'm going to agree to that?"
The Illusive Man let out a puff of smoke. "No. I don't. But I'm hoping you'll listen to reason. With our dominance of the geth, humanity's ascendance is assured. You can be a part of that future, help shape it. Your input and opinions are still valuable to me, in spite of our differences. And to humanity, and the galaxy as a whole."
"Human Prime," the geth said over the channel. "Sensor drones detect additional creator vessels on an intercept course with the Cerberus fleet at Orbital Body 413319."
"The Moreh," The Illusive Man said, examining the sensor signature on one of his holo panels. "Admiral Xen is in for a rude surprise if she tries to attack. Position yourselves to screen my fleet and destroy the creator vessels."
"Acknowledged, Human Prime."
Shepard glanced aside to see that the Normandy was only a minute away from achieving optimum orbital position to escape. He glared at the video feed. "So you've turned the geth into your own personal army?"
"I'm not forcing them to do anything they weren't planning to do on their own. It seems that after Xen's latest betrayal the geth have condemned the entire creator species to extermination."
"No," Shepard shook his head. "They'd never do that. The geth aren't interested in revenge."
"It's not revenge, Shepard. It's logic. Cold, hard, pure logic. I've looked into the mind of the collective, and I marvel at what I've seen. The geth have finally realized the folly of making amends with the quarians. Even if they were to spare the non-combatants and let the rest of the Migrant Fleet go, the quarian desire for revenge will always be there, just as it was after the Morning War. The only way the geth can ensure the quarians will never attack again is to eliminate them completely. And it was a decision they made in a fraction of a second, long before I assumed control."
Escape trajectory clear, Joker sent via text to Shepard's station. Shepard held his hand up, outside of pickup range. "Listen, I can still stop this-"
"So can I." The Illusive Man brought up another panel next to him and briefly manipulated the interface. "The geth war can be over as of right now. All I have to do is issue the command, and the geth will step aside and allow their creators return to Rannoch. No invasion, no more war. Tali could finally go home, and her people could live in peace on a world that could actually sustain them. All you have to do is surrender now, turn the Normandy over to the geth, and I will stop the war. You can still save them, Shepard, and save yourself. Save your entire crew. The choice is yours."
Shepard sat in his chair. How would all the civilizations fare in the Illusive Man's utopia? Because that was certainly the Illusive Man's ultimate goal now: galactic domination. He hadn't risked everything to take control of the geth just to preserve humanity's basic freedoms. Nor would he generously hand control of the geth over to Alliance Command or any elected government of Earth, step aside and watch with a warm smile as the citizens of the galaxy enjoyed a higher quality of life with his mechanical servants. No, the Illusive Man had a much grander plan in mind.
And once it became known Cerberus controlled the geth, humanity would instantly become the greatest threat in the galaxy. The Citadel wouldn't stand by and let humanity take possession of an inexhaustible labor force that could render unfriendly economies extinct, or worse, become the most frighteningly efficient military force the galaxy had ever seen. No network in existence would ever be secure against the processing power of the entire collective under Cerberus control. As for the Alliance itself, it would shatter into pro- and anti-Cerberus factions, with any corporation or nation unwilling to work with Cerberus left to fend for themselves, to eventually buckle under the will of Cerberus, or be crushed by its newfound power.
The geth existed peacefully for centuries with a power any dictator would kill for. It was fear of this potential that made every organic civilization dread the day the mechanical hordes would spill from beyond the Perseus Veil on a mission to eradicate all organic life. If free to spread through a galaxy full of natural resources, they could reproduce themselves so rapidly nothing would stop them. Yet what no one outside the Normandy crew knew was that the geth didn't desire territory or power. They only sought to ponder the cosmos, satisfied to consolidate their runtimes so they could all live as one... at least until an organic came along and replaced peaceful consensus with personal ambition.
And what would become of the crew of the Normandy? The Illusive Man might make allowances for Shepard, but what would happen to the rest of them? How would Garrus react when Hierarchy fleets were ordered into Alliance Space to forcibly remove the terrorist group's illegal robot army? What would Tali do if she saw her people reduced to a vassal state of Cerberus? And what would become of Miranda and Jacob and the other members of the Cerberus crew, all traitors now in the Illusive Man's eyes? What would Grunt think of his Battlemaster's newfound subservience, or Samara, who had just given up her life as a Justicar just so she could follow Shepard? Would the Illusive Man spare all of them, to keep Shepard on his side? Or would they become hostages, kept under constant threat of death to keep him in line? How many of them would split off on their own, picking up the struggle abandoned by their once-heroic Commander?
Shepard sighed. "For what it's worth, I appreciate that you made the offer. But I can't do that."
The Illusive Man blew a cloud of smoke. "That's your final answer?"
"It is. Unless, of course, I can convince you to release the geth and join me."
"I'm afraid that's not possible." The Illusive Man smiled sadly. "But it does prove we do have one more thing in common."
"Neither of us believe in compromise. Just for the record, I never wanted it to come to this."
"Me neither. But I'm not going to go down in history as the man who gave rise to the first galactic human empire."
"So be it." The Illusive Man pressed a key, still networked in so Shepard could see him to it. "Destroy the Normandy. Kill Commander Shepard."
"Joker! Punch it!" As the Normandy's main drive kicked in, the surface of the moon sped by below while Ammut's turbulent atmosphere boiled overhead.
"I said destroy the Normandy!" The feed to the Illusive Man was still open. Shepard turned back to the display, surprised at the urgency of his tone.
The geth's unmistakable voice responded over the same channel. "Unable to comply."
The Illusive Man sat forward in his chair. "Destroy the Normandy! Now!"
"Unable-" and the feed abruptly stopped.
The Normandy skimmed over the ice moon's curvature, using its gravity to slingshot it away from Ammut. Geth ships of all tonnages slipped by on the scanner display and outside the windows without reacting at all to its passing.
"Why aren't they attacking?" Miranda asked.
Joker veered the ship to avoid a giant geth warship on an intercept course. "Want to stop and ask them?"
"I am detecting a tremendous surge in EM transmissions between all of the geth platforms," EDI said. Fuzzy halos enveloped all of the surrounding targets on the tactical display, registering their signal output. "The signals are encrypted, but the amount of data being transmitted is incalculable."
A geth cruiser, at least four time the Normandy's mass appeared above the horizon, visible now outside the cockpit windows. Bright jets flared from its sides, then quit and the enormous vessel pitched over into a slow tumble as it drifted to starboard. Simultaneously, its energy output on the sensor display faded to nothing. The other sensor signatures all began to wink out all over the boards, their trajectories continuing in straight lines from their previous courses.
EDI's avatar pulsed brightly. "The geth ships are shutting down."
"Orders, Commander?" Joker asked.
Shepard stayed focused on the sensor tracks. "Maintain orbit."
"What?" Joker's finger hovered above the execute button. "Why?"
"Stay here, Joker! They're fighting it," Shepard said. "They're trying to fight the virus. EDI, can you raise them? Any of them at all?"
"Shepard-Commander-er," said the geth, the final syllable breaking into an elongated buzz.
"We read you," Shepard said into the comm. His board showed the signal strength fade. "What can we do to help? Tell us what to do! EDI, what happened? Did we lose them?"
"All geth transmissions have ceased," EDI said. "The platforms in range have entered a low power hibernation state. But before the shutdown I received a single unencrypted transmission. It appears to be navigational plot."
Beyond the windows, the panoramic curve of Ammut had disappeared from above, replaced by black space and bright stars. There were no more geth ships in sight. Shepard looked back at his displays. "Let's see it."
A wireframe rendering of Orbital Body 413319 appeared on their screen, with its sunflower-shaped array of solar panels and collectors. A series of coordinates and orbital trajectories appeared as an overlay.
"That mean they want us to go to the hub?" Joker asked.
"There's an annotation," EDI said, and zoomed in on the far side of the asteroid to tiny dots a hair's width from the surface. Up close, a handful of Cerberus ships appeared. The scan zoomed in further on a single a wedge-shaped ship about the size of Normandy, covered from bow to stern with arrays and antennas, hiding in the asteroid's shadow above the dark side.
Miranda looked over her shoulder after examining the readout. "That's the Xenophon."
"The what?" Shepard said.
"Gavin Archer's ship! The Xenophon. That's how they're doing it. There are no comm buoys in this system. The Xenophon has a quantum entanglement communicator on board, just like us. That's how they're issuing orders to the geth!"
"All right then. We take it out."
"No," Miranda climbed from her seat. "Wait! They'll have all of his research there. The virus. Don't you see? The geth shut themselves down to buy us time. If we can board her..."
Shepard nodded. "Maybe we can find a way to reverse it. Joker-!"
"On it," Joker said. "Course laid in! But we gotta get around this fatass gas giant first..."
"Go!" Shepard keyed the squad tactical net. If they weren't going to destroy the Xenophon outright, there was only one other option. "Report to the Kodiak deck with full loadouts. Prepare for boarding action. Everybody tool up, I'm on my way."
Miranda unclasped her safety restraints, but stopped halfway out of her chair. Would he want the entire command staff off the ship?
Shepard halted in the neck of the corridor leading to CIC. He looked back at her. "You too, Miranda!"
"Just making sure," Miranda said as they sprinted toward the elevator in CIC.
"Listen, shithead," Shepard called over his comm to Joker. "Keep them off of us as long as you can, but if it gets too hot get the hell out of here. Remember I'm not gonna be here to drag your ass to an escape pod this time. So don't let it get to that point."
"Did you hear something, EDI?" Joker responded. "It sounded like the Commander was telling us to run, but all I could make out was 'blah blah blah...' No way I'm leaving you behind."
"I'm gonna kick your ass out of that chair, Joker!"
"Yeah? You'll have to come back alive to do it. How's that for incentive?"
Shepard and Miranda shot past Kelly at her station, barely noticing the shocked look on her face as they rushed past her to the lift. Of course, it was stuck on deck three. They continued through the armory to the aft ladders where they slid down the rails to land in the AI core. Miranda, first down, wrenched the air-tight hatch open for Shepard to descend, then dropped down after him.
They found themselves in the portside sublevel, where only a week before Ken Donelly, Gabby Daniels, Tali'Zorah and Legion were repairing damage to the ship after the Normandy's escape from the collector base. It was the very compartment where Ken died after sealing the bulkheads to prevent a catastrophic explosion from destroying the ship. Shepard rushed to the forward hatch which lead to a maintenance corridor which lead directly to the hangar deck, with Miranda right behind him.
Inside the hangar, the squad was already in position, securing armor plates and weapons to hard points, verifying suit integrity against chemical agents and vacuum. Shepard and Miranda split apart to their respective footlockers, already set up and awaiting their arrival.
Shepard's eyes swept past the squad gearing up in front of the Kodiak. Miranda zipped and sealed her pressure skin, meticulously applying armpor plates over each limb. Jacob could suit up faster than any of them, and encased from head to toe in combat armor he moved down the line to assist his squad mates. As usual, Kasumi seemed to have trouble with her seals, requiring additional assistance from the ship's armorer. Zaeed, who routinely wore his armor even while on the ship, leaned against the hull of the Kodiak, fine tuning the optics on his rifle. Samara, forgoing armor altogether, sat in the lotus position on the deck, her eyes glowing blue, deep in meditation. Then there was Grunt, standing in full battle armor before a workbench covered with the most destructive weapons from every corner of the galaxy, trying to figure the best way to pack them on his ample back so as to leave nothing behind. Of them all, he was the only one who couldn't wait for what happened next. And around them all walked Garrus Vakarian in his trademark blue armor, helping to adjust a weapon mount or heat sink belt here, offering a word of encouragement there, pausing only to give Shepard a silent nod before moving onto the next squad member.
Shepard looked to the hatch of the Kodiak, where Tali and Legion waited within for their shipmates to board. Tali, perpetually encased in an armored environment suit, needed no additional preparation. Nor did Legion, whose pearlescent white armor now displayed a jagged-striped gray/dark gray pattern perfect for breaking up its silhouette during boarding actions. They sat next to one another on the forward bench, watching their shipmates prepare for action.
The deck shuddered as Normandy blasted out of orbit, its powerful engines working with the ship's momentum to guide around Ammut and toward the glowing sphere of Ma-at. In its wake, an entire fleet of geth vessels tumbled silently along their previous courses, oblivious to the small ship streaking away toward the sun.
Aboard the Moreh, Captain Rundan gripped the armrests on his chair. The tactical plot showed a dozen geth warships on an intercept course, directly between the quarian fleet and the geth hub on the asteroid. The Moreh herself had only rudimentary weaponry, but its electronic countermeasure capability rivaled any in the known galaxy. The quarians were outnumbered two to one, but it might be enough to make a difference.
Xen pulled the ship's ECM suite up on her omnitool. Her algorithms had analyzed the geth's sensor pulses and she had already programmed the Moreh to severely cripple the geth's ability to analyze the returns. But if anything could counter those countermeasures, it was the geth. Now, this close, there was no choice but to engage. But it wasn't the geth they needed to worry about now, Xen knew. The instant they pulled human remains from the unknown ship that had destroyed the Litanno's escorts, the sequence of events became clear to her. Cerberus was now in possession of Mobile Platform Two, and possibly the entire geth collective.
"Ten seconds to intercept," the targeting systems tech announced. At a combined velocity nearing the speed of light, both sides would have to aim carefully. Xen kept watch on the geth ships for any sign of deviation. They continued to close straight and true.
Then, as if a switch had been thrown, the geth ships stopped accelerating or even maneuvering.
"Registering drop in power output," the sensor tech said. "Barriers just went down on all targets!"
Rundan jumped to his feet. Had Xen managed to shut them down? But how it happened really didn't matter. "All ships, all batteries! Open fire! Fire at will!"
Beams of light connected the converging fleets, along with high energy pulses and tiny artificial comets of torpedoes. The geth ships stayed on course, carried by momentum toward the quarian ships, their hulls chewed to pieces by an unrelenting hail of fire. One by one they exploded, their mass effect cores creating miniature nebulae to mark their passing.
"Enemy targets destroyed," the sensor tech reported, giving voice to what all of the Moreh's bridge crew could see.
Xen climbed to her feet in spite of the throbbing pain in the stump of her leg. "The power loss was simultaneous. Something in their network brought them down."
"What does that mean?" Rundon asked.
"If they're down here, they might be down everywhere!"
The XO looked up at the Admiral. "But for how long?"
"Get to the hub," Xen said. There was no telling how long the reprieve would last, if it did at all. Cerberus would have never offlined the collective, not now. Nor was there a way to know how far the geth outage reached. But their path to their best chance of making sure of it was now wide open.
"Helm!" Rundan shook his head. The Moreh was one of the few ships in the fleet capable of transmitting FTL thanks to its own communication relay. "Steady course for comm relay alignment. Tell the fleet to attack!"
"Belay that!" The intensity of Xen's shriek made everyone flinch on the bridge of the Moreh. "Get us to that hub!"
The Illusive Man rarely stood when talking over the quantum entanglement communicator, but now he paced so rapidly that his image tore horizontally as it was sent across the light years to Archer on the Xenophon. "What happened, Doctor? Why did the geth shut down?"
In another reversal of roles, Archer's ghostly image was now blocked by a half dozen holo screens which he tried to read at once. The ordinarily unflappable scientist stuttered as he spoke. "I- I don't know. I've never seen anything like this. It's not a shutdown. Their whole network... it's like the entire collective is caught in a loop. All their processes are devoting cycles in unison to block a single process. They're drawing power from everywhere to stop it. It's the same across every node I can reach."
The Illusive Man left a trail of smoke behind him as he continued to pace. "Can you break the loop?"
"I don't know what caused it! We weren't executing any code here. What was the last instruction you gave them?"
The Illusive Man stopped in his tracks. "The Normandy arrived at Ma-at."
Archer slid a holo panel away so he could see the Illusive Man's face. "The what?"
"I ordered the geth to destroy it," The Illusive Man resumed his pacing. "They said they were unable to comply. Would removing the instruction break the loop?"
Archer looked dumbfounded, even across the QEC. "I don't know. But it makes sense now. We're talking about trillions of programs that received a single command. One that every single geth down to a process rejected. But because it was coded as consensus they are compelled to follow it. They've put themselves into a loop, individually, so they wouldn't have to."
"That's not acceptable, Doctor."
"I told you! We needed more time-"
"I'm not concerned with your excuses, Doctor. Only your solutions. What if you erase the offending command?"
"That may not matter now," Archer said. "It's possible that the simultaneous action of all these runtimes across the collective might actually eradicate the infected code. The best course of action might be to re-inject the a modified version of the virus specifically altered to countermand the loop and revert control back to us."
An alarm sounded over the QEC, which made Archer look up toward something the Illusive Man couldn't see, but he didn't need to ask. The same information was transmitted back to his own screens simultaneously.
"ALERT," a female human voice said, the commander of the Cerberus task force escorting the Xenophon. "Quarian ships have bypassed geth screen on course to Orbital Body 413319. Time to intercept, 30 seconds. We are maneuvering to engage."The Illusive Man studied the tactical display for a moment, then took a long, deep draw from his cigarette. He closed his eyes and exhaled, his face calm, smoke billowing from his nostrils. When he opened his eyes again, they glowed with great concern, but not a trace compassion. "It sounds to me like you need to hurry, Doctor."