Shepard pointed toward the shuttle. "Move!" He turned back to face the control shack where Legion stood and slapped a fresh heat sink into his rifle, waiting to see if his crew would obey his order. One by one on his tactical plot, they started for the Kodiak. Only one member of the squad remained close by.
"Shepard," Tali said, her voice cracking, "please don't do this."
He didn't look back at her. "You can't save us from here."
The words hit Tali like a mass accelerator. Every second she wasted, the less time any of them had; Shepard, Legion, the geth, the entire Migrant Fleet, any of them. She spun on her heel and chased after her crewmates toward the waiting shuttle. By the time they were halfway there, she was already in the lead.
"Garrus," Shepard said. "I'm staying here to cover Legion. Get Tali to the hub. Come back for us when you've taken care of the geth." He paused, waiting for an acknowledgement that didn't come. "You read me?"
"Affirmative," Garrus finally replied.
"I know I don't need to tell you this, but you fuck this up and we're finished. So no pressure, but..."
"Don't you dare say it."
"...I'm counting on you."
From a distance, Shepard watched Garrus roll off the roof of the Kodiak to land on the deck as Kasumi, Jacob, Miranda, Grunt and Tali were ending their sprint to the other end of the hangar. "See you in a few minutes, right?"
"We'll be back ASAP. Good luck, Shepard."
"You too," Shepard said. He turned back to Legion. "Shepard out."
"You should have departed," Legion said from the control console. Its camera eye focused through the window at its retreating shipmates. "It is not too late. There is nothing to be gained by risking your life."
Shepard stood next to the geth and figured angles potential shooters would have into the control shack. Its flimsy door and pane windows made it seem remarkably exposed in the corner of the hangar. "Would you have left me?"
"There's your answer." Shepard looked out the window to see the last of the squad disappear beyond the far side of the Kodiak.
Legion's head flaps expanded and his voice synthesized sputtered from overload. "Alert! We detect a sizable Cerberus force assembling on deck three, port stairwell."
Shepard looked at the hatch just outside the control shack. "How many?"
"Another squad, twelve to fifteen in number."
The hangar flared with blue light as the Kodiak rose from the Xenophon's deck. Shepard stared into the blackness beyond. "Where's the ship programmed to go?"
"No course set. Maximum thrust ordered on current vector. Safety protocols overridden. Trajectory will carry the Xenophon into Ma-at's corona."
"Anything you can do to change it?"
"All right," Shepard kept staring at the open bay door. "As soon as I give the word, release your hold on helm and put everything you've got into overriding the the self destruct."
"Shepard-Commander, the resulting delta-vee will cause substantial physical harm if you are not in a secure position."
"I'm counting on it," Shepard gave Legion's shoulder a thump with his fist then jogged back toward the middle of the hangar. The shuttle was dropping out of view, on its way to the hub. The Illusive Man didn't know it, but he just might have given Shepard just what he needed to even the odds. He huddled over one of the brightly outlined maintenance access panels dotted the deck and wrenched it open, exposing a crawlspace just like those on the Normandy. He dropped in, charging his barrier. It was just deep enough to cover him below the waist. A glance over his shoulder through the open bay door told him the Kodiak was clear of Xenophon's engines.
At the fore end of the deck, the portside hatch next to the shack slid open. Shepard raised his rifle but did not fire. The Cerberus troops locked onto the lone target in the middle of the hangar and surged through the door, peeling left and right, firing everything they had at Shepard's position.
Shepard ducked into the crawlspace at the first muzzle flash. He braced his back against the aft wall as grenades burst centimeters above his head, making his barrier flare. "Now, Legion!"
Legion's processes braced its physical platform against the console and released their locks on the Xenophon's helm. The ship surged forward with such force that its inertial dampeners couldn't compensate, but the console provided adequate support for the geth, having anticipated the sudden thrust.
In the crawlspace, all of the breath left Shepard's lungs as he was slammed back in his armor against the aft wall. Elsewhere throughout the ship, unsecured objects and crew fell sideways as relative motion turned the ship on its end.
The Cerberus squad in the hangar had the deck yanked from beneath their feet like a rug. The gaping maw of the hangar bay door rushed toward them to gulp them down as they shot to the aft. Flailing bodies and loose equipment tumbled helplessly through the open door, flaring like matchheads in Ma-at's blinding inferno.
Shepard constricted every muscle he could, trying to keep blood, tissue and organs in place as G-forces pinned him to the wall. The human body could withstand such sustained forces for only a few seconds before coming apart in a way even medigel couldn't fix. A dark kaleidoscope swirled in front of his eyes, then faded to black.
The Illusive Man rolled his cigarette between a thumb and forefinger as he stared at the Xenophon's status panel. The quantum entanglement communicator had relayed his commands to the ship, but they did not execute. Something, someone, was preventing the ship's destruction from the other side. His eyes darted back to Archer's projector in front of him. "Shepard has the Xenophon. How long, Doctor?"
"I'll tell you when I have an answer." Archer snapped, still pouring over his own displays. He looked up, suddenly remembering who he was talking to. "The geth networks are still in a locked state. It might be-" Archer's image stuttered, then froze, then disappeared altogether, replaced by the words NO SIGNAL.
The Illusive Man blinked. Loss of signal was impossible with the quantum array. It had infinite range and was impervious to interference. He switched to the Xenophon's status page. The quantum communicator was still receiving and reporting the ship's condition. Everything was the same as it was before except the ship now followed the escape trajectory away from the asteroid he'd programmed minutes ago. In close proximity to the hub, the Xenophon's antennas could easily maintain a lock on Archer's signal, relayed via one of the shuttles on the surface. But with the Xenophon spiraling out of orbit, that link in the chain was no more.
"Captain Scott," The Illusive Man said into the comm. "Report." There was no answer from the Xenophon's commander. "Xenophon, come in."
He flicked his cigarette to the obsidian floor, sending sparks flying as his hands rippled over the Xenophon's command console. Unless he could maneuver the Xenophon back into position, he no longer had eyes, ears or most importantly, a voice in the system of Ma-at. He reached out to cancel the self destruct command, then pulled back.
As long as Shepard was alive, humanity's domination of the geth collective was in question. But if Shepard was still on the Xenophon, there was a chance he could be contained. Even with the self destruct mechanism blocked, the research vessel could last only so long before it's shielding gave way to Ma-at's destructive power. One way or another, the Xenophon was about to meet its end, with Shepard and his valiant squad along for the ride.
The Illusive Man leaned back in his chair and reached into his vest pocket for his cigarette case. He lit a fresh cigarette and with a deep puff settled into his seat to wait.
The eight remaining members of the Normandy squad braced themselves as the Kodiak pitched and rolled on its uncontested trajectory to the geth hub. All but two sat in their seats and charged their barriers, adjusting armor fittings, passing weapons, fresh heatsinks and power packs down the line as Garrus and Jacob pulled them from the munitions locker.
"I can't believe we left them," Kasumi muttered as she slid extra heatsinks into her belt. She never needed but one or two, but the more prolific shooters always found themselves running short. "We've never left anyone behind!" Her sudden outburst drew stares from the rest of the squad. No one had ever seen the thief lose her composure. As they watched, Kasumi fixed her gaze on Garrus and Tali, whom more than anyone should have stayed behind to fight.
Tali didn't even hear her, focused intently on the geth code projected on her omnitool. Xen's virus was simple in function but complex in how many different routines it required to operate. A mistake rewriting any of them would be disastrous.
Garrus froze in front of the locker at the thief's words. Back on the Xenophon, It took every scrap of will he could muster to keep from rushing to the forward end of the hangar to provide cover for Shepard whether Shepard allowed it or not. The last time the Commander stayed behind on a doomed ship to save one of his crew, it ended badly for everyone.
For a split second, he wanted to backhand Kasumi. She'd only been with the squad for a few months, and she was going to question his loyalty to Shepard now? He looked to see the entire squad looking back at him, their expressions mirrors for Kasumi's. It wasn't his loyalty to Shepard that Kasumi was doubting, Garrus realized, it was her own, and she wasn't alone. Even though it had been on Shepard's order, they'd all left him behind.
"On final," Rolston said from the cockpit. "Negative contact. Thirty seconds."
Garrus reached into the locker and pulled out a heavy, claw-shaped weapon. "Grunt!" Using both hands he tossed the arc projector to the krogan sitting in the middle of the forward bench. Grunt's eyes lit up beneath his helmet's faceplace as he caught it one-handed, cradled it in his arms and laughed. The rest of the squad, however, was nowhere near as enthusiastic.
"Listen up," Garrus said, pacing in the center aisle, keeping his balance by holding onto the overhead rails. "We have to move, and move fast. Every second we're down there is another second Legion and Shepard are alone up here. Once we're inside, Grunt's on point, with Zaeed, Jacob and Samara behind. Miranda, Tali? With me. Kasumi?"
Kasumi looked up, surprised.
"I need you out in front, doing what you do best. We need every panel unlocked before we get to it. As usual, we'll shoot around you as best we can, so try to let us know where you are."
"Right," Kasumi said with a nod. She took a breath. "Listen... I'm sorry about before. I-"
"I didn't want to leave them, either."
"Traffic on the landing pad," Rolston said. "Two- check, three UD-47's already on the deck, still offloading personnel. How far away you want to set down?"
"No time," Garrus said, turning away from Kasumi. He looked over at Jacob and Miranda in their Cerberus-issued armor. "Take us right in but not a combat landing. Put us down just like we belong there."
Shepard's legs and back spasmed. Pain coursed through his arms, legs and spine and strange patterns swirled before his eyes. With shaking knees he pressed his back against the pit's wall and slid until his shoulders were level with the deck and brought his rifle to bear. He tried to blink his vision clear, but he wasn't just imagining the flashing colors. The entire hangar deck pulsed with red and yellow warning lights, but there was no other movement. The compartment was empty except for him. Slowly, he pulled himself onto the deck.
"I'm here, Legion." Shepard knew the geth was still intact because the Xenophon was, but hearing Legion's voice over the comm gave him renewed vigor. With a stagger in his step, he trotted slowly back to the control shack as circulation resumed through his veins. "What's our status? How we doing?"
"The Xenophon has entered a stable circular orbit around Ma-At with a period of approximately 46.6 days. However, we estimate the ship's electromagnetic shielding will provide less than fourteen minutes of protection on our current trajectory."
Shepard nodded. "I figured as much. How are you doing on the self destruct?"
Legion's vocodor still sputtered from overload. "We have refocused all of our runtimes on the task. However, the Xenophon's countermeasures have similarly redirected their efforts to counter us. We are unable to predict an outcome as control inputs for the Xenophon continue to be fed through the Quantum Entanglement Communicator."
Shepard clenched his jaw. The Illusive Man could still take control of the ship. The strength returned to his limbs as he hefted his rifle, but every muscle in his body felt strained. "Once you've got the self destruct disabled, try to take control of helm. Get us back to the hub if you can. Understood?"
"Acknowledged. However, control inputs from the quantum array will make... Shepard-Commander? Where are you going?"
"To do what I should have done a long time ago." Shepard stepped from the control shack and poked his head into the now empty stairwell. His pain subsided, replaced by a different kind of fire inside. It was as Zaeed told him when they'd first met. Rage is a hell of an anesthetic. He charged his rifle and marched toward the stairs. "Shut that son of a bitch down for good."
Gabby braced herself against her console in engineering as another impact rocked the Normandy. What was happening outside she couldn't guess. All she did know was that the ship was taking hits from all directions and the thermal buildup was once again edging into the red. There had to be a balance between weapon fire and maneuvering to keep from overheating, but Joker was demanding unlimited amounts of both.
As if that wasn't enough, the inboard starboard engine nacelle flashed yellow on the primary damage control display. "We're losing number three!" Ordinarily, Tali would have ordered Ken or Legion herself into the engineering crawlspaces to check for damage. Except Ken was dead and Tali and Legion away with Shepard.
But Gabby wasn't alone. In fact, she had more help than she'd ever had before. "I need someone in the number three nacelle to check for damage! Now!"
Three of the standard geth platforms stood watch at the other consoles in engineering, manipulating the panels under Gabby's direction. While they couldn't speak, a message window opened up on her screen.
Platform 12: Drive Core; Closest physical proximity. Redirecting platform to number three engine nacelle.
Platform 15: Reactor Compartment; Rendezvousing with Platform 12 to assist.
More messages popped up from around the ship.
Platform 6: Forward battery; power coupling restored. Awaiting instruction.
Platform 4: Port strut, frame 11; multiple leaks in main coolant line. Commencing repair.
Platform 9: CIC; commencing repair on aft inertial dampener.
Platform 10: Infirmary; assisting with casualty evaluation and treatment.
"Good job, everybody," Gabby said, knowing all of them could hear thanks to the platforms next to her. "Six, get to portside and help Four. Nine, Ten, as soon as you're done, get back down here and get to the reactor spaces! Got a feeling we're gonna need you!"
More alerts erupted on the status display. They were running out of power in almost every system and were short of parts and fabrication materials...short on everything except heat. Even though Joker could see the status on his own panels, it was time for a reminder. "Conn, Engineering! We need to break off. Thermal buildup at maximum!"
Joker didn't respond. The pilot obviously had his hands full. The ship shuddered from another blast. She looked toward her silent partners. She didn't know if it mattered to them at all, but she had to say something. "Keep it up, guys, you're doing great!"
With only a half-second of contact, Normandy's Thanix cannons sliced an attacking geth ship neatly in two sending each half tumbling off into space. "One down, a dozen to go," Joker said, looking around for another target. The quarians had crushed the Cerberus fleet, but now the creators and their creations were locked in battle. Any hope of the geth reverting to friendly mode vanished when they attacked the Normandy on sight. The quarians took many of the geth ships out when they were inert and helpless but reinforcements were arriving with every passing minute.
With the quarians still on the move, Joker didn't know who to target. The ship's kinetic barriers were almost drained, GARDIAN was so hot that it could barely track the ship itself, and the thermal gauges on his status board were back in the red, making the decision much easier. "Okay we're breaking off for another pass." He kicked the ship's tail out and accelerated the Normandy away from the fight.
"Alert," EDI said. "One of the quarian ships has disengaged as well."
"Running? Or coming after us?"
"Neither. They are on an intercept course with the asteroid. Jeff... it's the Moreh."
"Oh, hell no!" Joker yelled as he swung the ship around toward the tiny rock and the blazing star behind it.
Daro'Xen slumped in her chair inside the shuttle's cargo compartment. She closed her eyes to try and ease the pounding in her skull and the throbbing in the stub of her left leg. The Moreh pitched and rocked with each strike from the geth. Leaving her ship in the middle of battle was the last thing Xen wanted to do, but the Moreh was never meant for combat and would not last much longer. Besides, she wasn't abandoning ship. She was completing a sacred mission.
Around her, marines from the Moreh clamped themselves and their weapons in position as the shuttle prepared to launch. Casualties throughout the Moreh meant she could only muster a dozen of them. Though her marines were all experienced veterans, Xen knew they were no match for Shepard and his squad of mercenaries, nor would they last long on a geth installation swarming with hostile platforms.
But Shepard would reach the asteroid first. If the geth attacks on the Normandy were any indication, Cerberus had finally turned on Shepard. If she could land unnoticed, all she needed to do was wait for Shepard to draw the defenders on the asteroid away from her. Finding a network node shouldn't be a problem as long as resistance was concentrated elsewhere. She opened her eyes and stared at her omnitool on her wrist, forcing her eyes to focus. She keyed a nervestim routine in her suit followed by a high-potency IV stimulant. Her heart skipped several beats, but the pain subsided and her vision cleared. The code of the modified heretic virus glowed in front of her.
Xen cradled her omnitool on her lap. The future of the entire quarian species was literally in the palm of her hand... if she could get to the hub to use it.
A deafening crack resounded even through the quarian's suit. If not for the restraints of her seat, she would have careened into the ceiling above her. All around her, the marines arms flung into the air. Loose equipment crashed into the roof of the shuttle, then smashed into the deck.
"It's the Normandy!" Captain Rundan shouted over the comm channel. "She's right behind us!" The entire ship shuddered again.
"Launch us!" Xen screamed. "Launch now!"
"We're off axis-" Rundan's voice vanished behind another explosion. "Losing attitude control!"
Though there were no windows to see outside, everything in the shuttle tumbled like clothes in an air dryer as the mass effect fields strained to keep the environment inside stable. The marines screamed in panic and pain as the forces grew more and more intense.
Xen screamed as well, not because she was about to die, but because she was too close to let it end like this. In the midst of the pandemonium erupting around her, she activated the Fleetwide Emergency transmitter, the same that had been used when the Rayya had been destroyed. All surviving quarians in the Ma-at system would see it even after Moreh's destruction. As the shuttle disintegrated from all sides, stripped to shreds by weapon fire and collapsing mass effect fields, Xen prayed that at least one specific quarian received her message.
"Impact," EDI announced. "Target destroyed."
"Fuck you, bitch," Joker muttered as the Moreh's hull cracked and blue-white fire erupted from within.
"Oh, shit! Not you, EDI!" Joker and swung the Normandy wide of the Moreh's expanding fireball. He'd never felt more helpless than when the ship was trapped by Dashta's docking clamps while mercenaries swarmed its decks and his friends were under siege on the station. Ever since, he'd been dreaming of payback, and unlike Xen, he had succeeded. "I meant the Moreh. Breaking off, going for distance. Find us another target!"
The surface of Orbital Body 413319 was rocky, porous, and pitch black. The color was more accurately charcoal, but on the dark side of the asteroid there was no way to tell. Ma-at created a white aurora that streamed up from the horizon in all directions into the stars above. Dozens of geth platforms stood frozen in mid-stride, eyes dark, stopped dead in the middle of whatever task they had been carrying out, forming an eerie statue garden around a giant rectangular opening in the side of a small rise.
The area around the entrance was not entirely still. Humans in vacc armor carried heavy equipment from one of three Kodiak shuttles in the darkness. They worked without light, depending on light intensification visors to guide them. Low-power burst transmissions between them would only carry a few dozen meters at most. They were for all intents and purposes invisible from orbit.
"Got a target inbound," SGT Glotzer said as he gazed into the sky, tracking the intruder with passive optics only so as not to give away his position. The spacecraft approaching from orbit also radiated nothing, appearing only as a black slab in the sky as it descended.
"Cover!" Lieutenant Hazan shouted to his troops over the tactical net and looked into the darkness above as his his squad dropped what they were doing and retreated to cover. "Got an ID? Is it quarian?"
"No squawk. Not the quarians, though... Holy shit, it's a Forty-Seven!"
"The Apollo, maybe? They're on standard approach, right to us. Whoever it is, they know we're here."
"Cerberus markings," another Centurion said. "It's ours!"
"Hold fire." Hazan said as quiet cheers erupted over the channel. As Glotzer indicated, the Kodiak made a rushed but controlled landing right next to the other three shuttles, displaying no lights or beacons of any sort. Even its reaction control jets stayed hidden behind their baffles. The pilot knew exactly what he was doing. Once settled, the human pilot waved a hand through the cockpit window before reaching up to complete the landing sequence. A wide smile shown on his face through their night vision optics.
Hazan waved back with relief and looked over his shoulder. "Conti, duck inside and tell the Major reinforcements are coming in. Don't transmit until you're under cover."
"Roger that," Conti said, slung his rifle, and headed for the door.
"Got two targets disembarking on the left," the centurion's voice was calm. "They're human!"
Hazan zoomed in on the two figures. Like the pilot, they were clearly human, outfitted with Cerberus hardsuits. He sighed with relief as a man cradling a Mattock rifle marched a pace behind a woman who wore a Locust SMG on her hip. The insignia on her Cerberus-issue armor indicated she was a senior operative. She beckoned the troopers forward as she advanced. Hazan lowered his rifle and jogged forward, trying not to bounce in the asteroid's low gravity. The operative extended her right hand as she approached, a smile visible behind her mask.
As they drew closer, Hazan's near field receptors locked on the operative's comm system and he pumped his superior officer's hand. "Lieutenant Hazan. Are we glad to see you, ma'am! What's going on up there?" Behind the operative, more figures dropped from the newly-landed Kodiak from both sides. Unlike the two humans in front, the others were not wearing anything close to resembling Cerberus gear. They weren't even human, Kazan realized, as the giant hulk of a krogan in full battle armor dropped to the ground behind them. His eyes went back to the operative and he tried to pull his hand back, only to be blinded from inside as every synapse in his body shorted out at once.
Conti had only taken a couple of steps toward the main entrance to the geth hub before a blue flash cast the shadow the squad on the wall in sharp relief on the wall in front of him. The doorway yawned in front of him, waiting to lead him down into the geth base, but that flash was unexpected. Was a shuttle taking off? He turned his head to look.
Hazan and the half dozen Centurions around him drifted above the asteroid's surface, their bodies arcing with biotic energy. The two Cerberus operatives from the shuttle had dropped to the ground, weapons to bear, spraying anyone still standing. From behind them, more figures spilled out of the newly landed Kodiak. Another human, then an asari from the look of her helmet, and a krogan all surged forward, weapons ablaze.
Conti bolted for the door, as best as he could manage in the low gravity. He hated leaving his friends behind, but his first priority had to be to warn the others. The giant doors began to slide shut in front of him. Soon, nothing at all would be able to get through; personnel, equipment or radio transmissions. Only meters away, he dove headfirst toward the narrowing gap. As he sailed through the vacuum something grabbed his right arm, yanking him off course and flinging him into the wall of porous black rock. He tumbled headfirst to land on his back and used the momentum to spring to his feet, bringing his rifle to bear. In front of him a ghostly apparition shimmered in the darkness and raised brilliant white spark appeared over its shoulder which smacked into his head with the force of a lightning bolt.
Garrus leaned against the edge of the Kodiak's open hatch and from his elevated position fired round after round over the heads of Grunt, Samara and Zaeed as they rushed forward. The Justicar and mercenary halted at the end of the short alley created by the side-by-side shuttles, but Grunt charged onward amidst a hail of gunfire from the Cerberus troops. Miranda and Jacob lay on the ground in what would have been a murderous killzone, but soon every gun trained on the rampaging krogan, who bellowed mightily over comms even though none of the Cerberus troops could hear him.
Garrus fired over their heads into the line of Cerberus soldiers, careful of the human ghost beyond. Kasumi had succeeded in shutting the doors to the hub and was now darting to the left as Garrus had instructed, out of the line of fire. Grunt plowed into the remaining Cerberus ranks to the right like a bowling ball as Samara picked off targets one by one with the flick of her wrist. Zaeed's methods were less esoteric, his rifle and grenade launcher shredding the enemy before them.
Garrus sidestepped to his right along the line of neatly parked Kodiaks, firing down the alley between each of them as he moved, keeping pace with Grunt. When he got to the end, he'd be in perfect position to fire down their line. His Mantis couldn't penetrate a Centurion's barrier and armor in a single shot, but the powerful impact on a helmet could blind, disorient, or otherwise incapacitate the target for a few seconds. At this range, he didn't even stop to watch his shots land. As soon as a helmeted head snapped back, he slid to the side and scoped another target. Wash, rinse, repeat, Shepard called it.
He reached the edge of the last Kodiak. The Cerberus troopers ahead of him concentrated fire to his left, where the main thrust of the attack came from the Normandy squad. He closed one eye and raised his rifle once more to do more serious damage when the image of the scope went dark, and he felt the weapon tugged from his hands.
A massive Centurion in powered armor dropped from the shuttle's side hatch and yanked the barrel of Garrus's rifle down and away. Instead of resisting, Garrus let go, yanking his pistol from its holster and firing repeatedly into the trooper's chest. The human's kinetic barrier flared as he threw the Mantis aside and went for his own weapon, an Avenger clamped to his back. He brought it to his hip and pulled the trigger, point blank.
The Centurion's rounds sparked off the hull of the Kodiak as he spun left beneath a hail of silver-white shot. He fell sideways, his rifle now firing harmlessly into space. He convulsed with each successive shot until he landed in a lifeless heap on the asteroid surface. Vaporized blood leaked into open space from the holes his body.
Tali hopped down from the Kodiak's hatch. She'd been following Garrus's progress, but passed through each shuttle instead of behind them. She reached down to pick up the turian's rifle, held in the hand opposite her shotgun and cocked her head as if deep in thought. She tossed the rifle to Garrus and patted her preferred weapon with a shake of her head.
I'm going to hear about this later, Garrus thought as he seated another heatsink in his rifle. Beyond, Grunt reached the final Cerberus soldier still standing and grabbed the unfortunate man by his helmet. With a mighty heave, he flung the human into the sky with all his might. The low gravity might have given the trooper a chance of surviving the landing, except that his helmet was still in the Krogan's hands. Garrus couldn't tell, and didn't want to know, if the head was left in it.
"Clear," Jacob said over the comm.
Garrus waved Tali forward and the pair moved to the front of the shuttle where Grunt waited for them, looking very pleased with himself. True to Jacob's word, there was no further opposition from the Cerberus team. Close to twenty bodies littered the ground. Once again all eyes turned to Garrus.
"Kasumi?" Garrus said. "I know you just got it closed, but..."
"Open sesame," the thief said from nowhere. In the darkness beyond, the giant double door to the geth hub began to slide open. Dark silhouettes of geth platforms of all shapes and sizes looked on from all sides but offered no objection.
Garrus nodded toward the door. Without needing to say a word, Miranda stepped aside to let Grunt take point, with Jacob, Zaeed and Samara behind. Garrus turned to Tali, who looked back at him with an odd look in her eye. It was Tali's most common way to express emotion. But it wasn't fear he saw in them, or even concern. It was a look of utmost confidence, the way she always looked at Shepard anytime he lead them in harms way.
"Let's do it," Tali said.
Garrus nodded and jogged ahead to catch up to the lead element with Miranda falling in step right beside him, with Tali with and her valuable coded cargo covering from behind. As they poured through the hatch to the geth hub, no one but Tali saw the red glow emanating from her omnitool upon reception of the final emergency broadcast anyone would ever receive from the Migrant Fleet Admiralty Board.
Shepard wrenched the Centurion over his hip and slammed him into Xenophon's deck. Sots sparking across his barrier, he brought his rifle to his shoulder and sighted on the chest of another trooper, the middle of three, and let loose an inferno grenade up the corridor. He ducked behind the junction and fired point blank into the trooper he'd just taken down in front of him. The grenade's blast wave rocketed past.
He whirled back around the corner, rifle once again raised to his shoulder. The trio of Cerberus troopers writhed as their armor turned to scalding slag, their screams audible over the sound of his rifle as he fired into them. By the time they fell to the deck, they were nothing more than smoldering corpses. A mournful klaxon echoed repeatedly through the ship. Cerberus had undone the sabotage Tali had done to the forward hatches, but so far it had only cost them lives.
Only two minutes had passed since Shepard had left Legion in the hangar deck. The first opposition he'd run into on deck three were badly injured and barely put up a fight. This last group on deck two, having more time to recover, were much more alert. It would only get tougher the further he advanced. But he made no attempt to hide, no attempt at a feint or distraction. Cerberus needed to concentrate on him, and not the geth in the hangar keeping them all alive.
The ladder at the aft end of the ship was retracted into the wall with the hatch above sealed. He clamped his rifle to his back so he could manipulate his omnitool to bypass the lock. Seconds later, his kinetic barrier flared again and the wall behind him sparked from enemy fire from the far end of the corridor. He stayed focused on the lock as the rate of fire increased. He was too close with the lock to stop now. His barrier flared and faded away. Rounds ricocheted from his armor, knocking him off balance. Then the rungs extended, leading to the open hatch above. He scrambled up the wall, sealing the hatch behind him. He pivoted around in a crouch, and seeing no targets, slid forward of the hatch so he'd be behind whoever might follow. Holding his rifle in one hand, he primed a grenade in the other.
The hatch in the deck re-opened and a helmeted figure bobbed up, trying to look over his shoulder. Shepard fired point-blank into his skull and he fell back down the ladder. Shepard's grenade followed, clanking down the hole as he re-sealed the hatch. A muffled whump sounded from below and the deck shuddered beneath his chest. He rose to a crouch for a better look at his surroundings.
A lab compartment, similar to Mordin's, stood in ruin. Scientific instruments and expensive scanning equipment covered the deck near the aft wall, smashed into fragments along with a standard issue sentry gun which lay on its side, out of commission. Next to it, another Centurion lay crumpled on the deck, his arms and legs twisted in a way no living human could withstand. The alarm system continued to wail as Shepard moved forward to the control center.
When the hatch to Xenophon's CIC opened, the situation was even more grim. Bodies were piled up against the compartment's blood-coated aft wall as if swept there by a giant broom. Many were still strapped into seats which separated from their mounts from the sudden, excessive acceleration. Unlike Normandy, the research ship was not reinforced for combat maneuvers. Without armor or kinetic barriers to protect them, the entire command crew smashed into the aft wall. Crushed skulls, broken necks and backs meant an instant death for most, but some in the pile still moaned and cried in pain.
A single crew member sat on her knees next to them. She was in her late twenties with short black hair and athletic build, with the insignia of a sensor tech on her shoulder. Shepard might have been looking at Gabby or Kelly on his own ship, except the right side of the woman's face was covered with blood and her right eye swollen shut. Her expression went from from hope to fear at the sight of the N7 logo on his chest and the rifle in his hand, but she continued to comfort the moaning man as she cradled his head in her lap.
Shepard reached behind his back for the medical pack stuck to his armor and tossed it to her. "Do what you can," he said and turned forward. Like the Normandy, Xenophon's command deck was arranged around a large holo projector with crew stations in a ring facing outward. A long corridor lead to the bow, also lined with stations. Anyone unlucky enough to be in this part of the ship found themselves falling down a four-story elevator shaft at five gravities when the ship's engines kicked in. Red and yellow warning lights flickered as he walked forward. The corridor narrowed and ended in another hatch. Shepard touched its panel and it slid open.
Unlike Normandy, the Xenophon had a bridge, not a cockpit. The circular room was spotless, with gleaming white panels and chrome accents. A nav console with two recessed seats sat before enormous bay windows that ran from deck to ceiling, filled with white from Ma-at's corona. The captain's chair sat empty immediately behind, with another ring of outward-facing stations along its perimeter.
The left-hand navigator seat was empty, but the right was still occupied by a young woman in a Cerberus uniform and ball cap working the console. A cough made Shepard look down to where another crew member tended to an older man lying on his back with a captain's insignia on his uniform. Five other crew members lay on the ground next to each other, unconscious or dead, tended by another crewman with an emergency kit.
The man attending the captain looked up at Shepard's arrival. "Sir," he said, patting his commanding officer on his shoulder. The injured man opened his eyes.
"Captain," Shepard said, lowering his rifle. "You're ship's on a suicide course. I can stop it if you give me access to your quantum entanglement communicator."
"Go to hell, Shepard," the Captain whispered between ragged breaths.
Shepard's hands tightened around his rifle. There wasn't time to bargain or argue. But if this had been the Normandy and he were lying in the Captain's position now, would he feel any different? "You need to think of your people, sir."
"I am thinking... of my people," said the captain. He was struggling to stay conscious, but still defiant. "All of us here are. Are you?"
Shepard scanned the bridge, looking for the comm station. "I need access to the quantum entanglement communicator," he said to the surviving crew members. "The Illusive Man is trying to destroy the ship. It's the only chance any of you have got." They all stared back with hate in their eyes.
"If Shepard takes one more step," A bubble of blood popped in the Captain's mouth. "kill him."
"Captain, please..." Shepard had no time to waste. He walked port to the nearest console.
The two medics and the helmsman looked at one another then went for their pistols. Shepard raised his rifle and fired three shots along three vectors, headshots all. The three Xenophon crew crumpled to the deck, with the helmsman's ball cap tumbling from her head when she hit the ground. Shepard turned back, his rifle aimed square at the captain's head.
"Traitor," the captain murmured as consciousness left him.
Shepard lowered his rifle and reached out to seal the bridge hatch. It wouldn't lock without a command code, but at least he'd have some warning if someone tried to come in. He walked around the ring until he found the comm station. It was locked and secured. He pulled up his omnitool and started the time-consuming override process. There was no other choice. "Legion, do you copy?"
"Affirmative, Shepard-Commander. What is your status?"
"I'm on the bridge. I'll have the quantum array shut down in a minute. How're you doing?"
"Status unchanged. Self-destruct sequence is still initiated but we are still impeding its progress. Negative contact with enemy personnel."
"Good," Shepard said, still working his omnitool. "Stand by."
"Shepard," a familiar voice said from the comm console, displaying familiar face on the holo screen. Glowing blue eyes stared at him through a cloud of cigarette smoke, in a face framed by a glowing red star.
The Illusive Man leaned forward in his chair. "I'm begging you to reconsider." Shepard gave no indication that he was even listening as he worked controls outside the view of the camera. "Think about the future of humanity, what's at stake. If we control the geth, we control our destiny, no one else. Do you think that any other species would hesitate in our position? What would the asari do? Or the turians, or salarians? Or worse, someone like the batarians? Think about the geth themselves. What will they be capable of? Left to their own devices, they may one day present a threat to organic life greater than the reapers."
Shepard continued to focus on his unseen task. The Illusive Man struggled to maintain calm. If he somehow managed to convince Shepard to quit it would be a miracle, but all he really needed to do was stall for time and let Ma-at solve the Shepard issue for him. "Right now we have the power. We control the geth. There will be no question-"
The feed went blank, replaced with the words SIGNAL LOST. All telemetry from the Xenophon ended simultaneously. The quantum entanglement link that could transmit to a ship anywhere in the galaxy had been switched off.
The Illusive Man sat back in his chair and stared at the now-dead monitors, his cigarette burning between his fingers. "Eva?"
"Yes sir," said the disembodied voice.
"Alert all personnel. Begin data sanitation procedures immediately. Prepare the station for evacuation."
"Self destruct terminated," Legion said over Shepard's comm. "Subsystems disabled. No further attempts will be possible."
"Good work, Legion," Shepard glanced at the ship's status on the nav station's main screen. Power levels were beginning to fluctuate as the ship diverted more energy to its defensive screens. With the reactor running at maximum, the Xenophon would soon overheat from within even as it tried to resist the searing rays from outside. "Can you do anything with the helm?"
"AI Countermeasures have control. Attempting to override."
"Keep at it. I'll look for another way off the ship."
So what now, Shepard thought. This close to the sun, the escape pods would be useless for all the protection they could provide. But a man like Archer might have a personal shuttle or some specially made lifeboat. He flicked through the Xenophon's deck plans. At the nose of the ship, one deck down, a sleek, elegant-looking runabout was docked.
"Bingo," he said to himself and turned to leave, but stopped. What was he thinking? He was standing in front of the ship's comm console. He powered up the system, punched in a frequency and keyed the transmitter. "Normandy, Shepard. Copy? Normandy, this is Shepard, calling from Xenophon. Do you read?" The signal indicators on the panel all remained flat.
A metallic clank sounded against the bridge hatch. He reached to the console and flipped open a physical cover which revealed one of the few physical toggle switches on the ship. He flipped the switch. "Distress beacon activated," said a calm, disembodied voice as Shepard moved to the side of the hatch and crouched low, his weapon at the ready. No one might be around to hear his SOS, or worse the wrong people might hear it, but some chance was better than none.
The bridge hatch slid open, and a split second after the room was filled with light as brilliant as the star outside the ship.
At the console in the geth hub, Gavin Archer watched the progress icon spin endlessly in place. He was telling the truth when he said he had no idea how long it would take for the geth hub to come back online. Individual, isolated ships responded more quickly as they completed their power cycles, but the hub remained inactive. It could be seconds, it could be minutes, it might be an hour for all he knew. The only certainty was that he was powerless until it happened.
He looked at Major Griggs, who paced at the other end of the room while the rest her squad looked on, her hand cupped over the side of her helmet as she waited for a response from the surface team. The chamber they occupied was dimly lit, perhaps fifteen meters deep and half again as wide. Eight columns holding four geth platforms each, one to a side, filled the center of the chamber with the console at its rear. A solid metal door as wide as the room remained shut in front of where the Major paced.
"Xenophon, come in," Griggs said into her comm. "Hazan, report. Anyone on the surface, do you read?"
"Still no contact with the ship," Archer said. "No signal."
"One of the signal relays must have gone down," suggested Takagi, one of Grigg's sergeants. "On the surface or in the corridor. Want me to take a look? Just take a second."
Archer let out a laugh. "Open the door before the geth have reactivated? Are you mad? What if the quarians are out there?"
"No way the quarians could take Hazan out," Amil, a heavy weapons trooper said.
"We need to know what's going on one way or another," Takagi said. "We're blind in here, ma'am."
Griggs shook her head. "Archer's right. The door stays closed until the geth come back online. If it's a malfunction, someone from Bravo will come down and-"
As if the walls had ears, the giant metal door began sliding open to the right. It couldn't be someone from the surface - none of them had the code key. "Cover," she shouted. She and her troopers dispersed behind the columns in the room and aimed at the door as it continued to grind open. The corridor beyond was empty.
"Farrow," Griggs said. The door was halfway open now. "Get your drone up-" A flash in the corner of her eye her made her stop. She looked back over her shoulder to see Farrow's head enveloped in light, barely revealing the faint outline of a humanoid figure darting away as the Centurion fell.
The soldier next to Farrow brought his rifle up, only to be knocked on his back as well by the invisible attacker. Griggs inhaled to give the order to fire but her head smacked into the chamber as she and the five Centurions around her tumbled through the open door, their weapons skittering away. Lying on her back in a daze, she watched a giant krogan vault overhead, followed by an asari in red armor flooding the room with blasts of biotic energy. Griggs reached for her sidearm but couldn't even draw before point-blank rifle fire ripped away her barrier. Holes erupted across her torso. As she convulsed on the deck, a woman in a Cerberus hardsuit stepped behind two human soldiers spraying the console chamber with rifle fire. The woman looked down at Griggs on the ground with a dull expression.
It wasn't the quarians after all, Griggs thought as undulating mass effect fields shredded her body, courtesy of the ex-operative standing over her. It was a small comfort to know that at least she and her team hadn't been defeated by mere quarians.
The Normandy team spread through the console chamber, making sure none of the enemy would get up to trouble them later. Grunt lead the way, shattering helmets of the downed Cerberus soldiers with blasts from his Claymore. Samara, Jacob and Zaeed followed close behind, also making sure none of the enemy would recover.
Tali rushed past them to the control station at the far end of the room. She stepped wide around the geth console, shotgun raised. Her finger tensed on the trigger when she saw a human in white vac suit hiding behind it. The man's hands were up and empty, his eyes full of fear. Unlike the others, his sleek, trim environment suit was not armored for combat. "Over here!"
Grunt leaned over the console and picked up the cowering human and slammed him against the back wall by his neck.
"Keep watch," Garrus told Jacob as he trotted to the console. Grunt's prisoner clutched at the krogan's arm, trying to pull himself up so all the weight wasn't on his neck. Garrus moved closer to look at the human's face behind his visor. "Well, well. Doctor Archer. It's been a while."
"Tell the krogan to put me down," Archer yelled. "If you let me go, I'll have the geth spare you."
"I think Tali will be able to convince them for us." Garrus said.
Archer smiled. "Are you sure about that? Your quarian friend may beg to differ. "
Garrus turned to Tali. She slammed her fists against the terminal. "He's done something to the console. Encrypted the file system or something. I can't get in."
"If you start back now," Archer said, his voice brimming with confidence, "you might be able to get back to your ship before the geth reactivate. But if you kill me, they'll destroy you on sight upon awakening."
Garrus ignored the scientist, looking over Tali's shoulder. "Can you break it?"
"I can't even open a port," Tali said. She punched commands fruitlessly into her omnitool "Legion or EDI might be able to do it quickly, but I'll need more time. It's locked tight."
"Kasumi?" Garrus looked around for the thief, who appeared out of thin air next to Tali.
"However long Tali says, multiply it by two for me. This is out of my league."
Time was ticking down on more than one clock. Garrus raised his rifle, but did not aim it specifically at Archer. "We need the key, Doctor."
Archer raised his chin. "Kill me and the geth kill you. It's that simple. If you want to live, leave now, because-" His voice trailed off when another figure walked into view.
"Gavin," Miranda stepped in front of the console next to Tali and leaned with her back against it, her arms crossed in front of her. "I'd like the console unlocked, and unlocked now."
Archer paled behind his face mask and struggled to keep his voice level. "You have less than five minutes, I estimate."
"Whether we live or die is irrelevant to you compared to your own well being. If you cooperate, I guarantee you'll be unharmed. However, if you don't, I promise that you will spend the rest of your days retraining your vast intellect to spell complicated words like 'cat.' You know that's a promise I can keep, even with the limited materials I have on hand."
A drop of sweat dribbled down the side of Archer's head behind his facemask. He never took his eyes from Miranda. He finally gave a nod.
Miranda stepped aside. "Grunt, please help Doctor Archer to the console."
Lifting the puny human caused no strain for Grunt as he pivoted around and deposited Archer in front of the geth systems. He let go, then rested a massive hand on Archer's shoulder in an unfriendly fashion. "Atta way, Doc. I knew you'd want to put that big brain of yours to use instead of letting me bounce it off of the walls."
"Remember, Doctor," Garrus said, "If Tali doesn't get full access..."
"He knows what will happen," Miranda said, leaning in close to Archer. "Don't you, Gavin?"
Archer shook as he took a deep breath. It was obvious he feared the Cerberus operative next to him more than the giant krogan behind him. Standing in the middle of a circle comprised of eight of the greatest killers in the galaxy watching his every move, Archer unlocked the console without having to redo a single keystroke. "The console is open," he said. "Full admin access."
"Tali?" Miranda asked.
The quarian shifted in front of the console and worked the interface. She gave Miranda a nod, and went straight to the task of re-coding the virus.
"Well done, Gavin," Miranda said, raising her own omnitool to Archer's back. A bright white cascade of sparks arced across his body and he dropped to the ground.
"I thought you were going to let me do that," Grunt said with obvious disappointment.
"Sorry," Miranda said as she knelt over Archer's body.
"How did you convince him to change his mind so quickly?" Samara asked.
Garrus stepped next to Miranda to look at the unconscious human. "It's all about knowing their weaknesses. That was beautiful, Miranda. Is he dead?"
"Oh no," Miranda said. "I'm a woman of my word. Besides, it would be nice to have someone corroborate my deposition to C-Sec when we get back, don't you think?"
Around the circle came silent nods of approval. Garrus smiled. "Absolutely. Let's get him somewhere out of the way."
Grunt dragged the unconscious scientist to the far corner of the chamber with one hand.
Garrus turned back to Tali. "How long do you need?"
"Three, four minutes," Tali said. "I've got to alter the code for direct injection to the console instead of a platform, but it won't take until the hub itself is back online."
Miranda looked toward the corridor. "Think you'll be done before that happens?"
Tali shook her head and continued to work. "I don't know."
Not wanting to distract their only chance for survival any further, Garrus took a step back, motioning the squad to follow. "We'd better get ready then. Start in here. Take down these platforms. When that's done, move on to the the ones in the corridor."
The squad dispersed to pull down the geth platforms from their mounts. Kasumi nodded toward the opening. "Think maybe we should we close the door?"
Garrus shook his head as he yanked a geth platform from its column. "The geth will just open it again. No way we we'll be able to lock them out of their own systems."
"Good point," Kasumi said as she pulled another Legion-look-alike from its mount.
Zaeed hammered at another geth with the butt of his rifle. "Be a goddamn death trap in here if we did, anyway, as soon as it opened. Better to have a shot at 'em as they come."
Soon the deck was littered with geth platforms collapsed in heaps, in both the chamber and the corridor outside. As the last geth shell fell, the entire compartment erupted with an angry crimson glow. Bright traces of red light shown through the grating in the deck, walls and ceilings, pulsing with energy. The entire squad looked back to Tali, still hard at work at the console.
Garrus stared down down the long corridor outside the console chamber. Bathed in red light and full of haze, they couldn't even see halfway down its length, but their tactical displays showed a different story. Data points swirled around the installation like water to a drain as the geth downloaded, but their physical platforms could only come at them from one direction. Garrus walked ahead, pointing ahead to the now empty alcoves lining the corridor. "Kasumi, Miranda, take this row, opposite sides, just before the intersection. Fry as many as you can when they come, then fall back as soon as you need to recharge. Zaeed, Jacob, in the row behind, covering. Grunt, Samara, third row. When Zaeed and Jacob have to retreat, you cover everyone and we'll fall back into the chamber together. Got that? As soon as Zaeed and Jacob pull back we all do. Grunt? Hold off on the projector until I say. Clear?"
"Got it," Grunt said, without a trace of disappointment at not being able to use his new toy.
Garrus glanced once more down the corridor as the squad settled into their firing positions. He pulled his Mantis from its mount and turned back to the console chamber. Inside, Tali didn't acknowledge him as he approached, concentrating on her work, surrounded by a ring of holo panels. Her omnitool still pulsed and flashed red as it did when they were on the surface.
Garrus clutched his rifle. There was no need to say anything about their situation. Tali knew. "We're set up outside. We'll hold them off as long as we can."
Tali's eyes never left the console. She gave him a quick nod.
Garrus trotted back to the end of the corridor and lay down on the deck, extending his weapon's bipod. His scope showed nothing but red haze. He flicked through the different enhancers until he found a wavelength that showed a maximum amount of the corridor and waited. Ahead, in their respective cubbyholes, the rest of the squad did the same.
No one talked except for muted requests for extra heat sinks or arc grenades, or for someone to verify a field of fire. Red lights pulsed in the conduits in the walls and deck grew stronger as the seconds ticked by. The squad fell silent.
Garrus kept one eye to his scope, but glanced with his other over his silent team. He didn't need to ask what they were thinking because he was thinking the same thing. Where is Shepard, and what would he be doing if he were here? Garrus had been put in command of a fire team many times through the crew's time together on the Normandy. No one batted an eye when Shepard put him charge of the distraction element during the assault on the collector station. But each time Shepard was still been in command, overseeing the entire operation, keeping everyone in line and working together.
Garrus leaned his cheek against his rifle. If he couldn't even keep his own head straight, how would any of the others be able to keep it together? Shepard put him in command and no one had ever given the slightest indication they objected, and they had followed his every order as if they came from Shepard himself. You're their leader, he thought. Act like it. The first thing he needed to do was to get them talking again, like they always did.
"Well," he said, "now that we're all here together, I'd just like to personally thank each and every one of you for your contributions to the art exhibit on my door."
A welcome round of laughter echoed over the squad channel. Garrus went back to scanning the corridor. "Now that I've got you all in my sights, anyone care to confess? Miranda? It turns out you're quite the poet."
"I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about," Miranda said with a smirk.
"Mmm-hmm. The only one with neater print on the ship is EDI. I used to do handwriting analysis. Want to know what it says about you?"
"I can't wait to hear." More laughter.
"I've prepared full profiles on all of you. Kasumi, your involvement was obvious and I've singled you out as the ring leader. Jacob, Zaeed? I'm disappointed. Neither of you are apparently bothered to research turian anatomy. And Grunt? Your shading skills are impressive, even if you have the same misconceptions as our human friends."
"That's my fault," Zaeed said. "He came to me for help."
Grunt grinned happily. "But it was a good picture though, right?"
Garrus sighed. "If anyone ever commissions a portrait of me, I'd like you to do the honors."
"I can do colors, too!"
"And Samara... I don't know what to say, except thank you for being the only one mature enough not to participate."
Samara nodded. "I was given the opportunity, but felt I lacked a certain level of... cultural awareness to contribute effectively."
"Regardless," Garrus said, "you were strong enough not to give in to peer pressure and I applaud that."
Samara smiled behind her mask. "I stood watch while the others worked."
"Respect!" Kasumi said from her alcove.
"Team player, all the way," Jacob said from his. "That's what it's all about, isn't it Garrus?"
"You know I still haven't seen it," Miranda said. "Fleet and Flotilla."
Kasumi looked over her shoulder and grinned. "Oh, we are totally watching it when we get back."
"No doubt," Jacob said. "Set up in the mess. Pop some corn, grill up some dogs, toss back a few cans."
"Is there any action in it at all?" Grunt asked. "Or is it all... romance?"
"Let's put it this way, Grunt," Kasumi said. "Better enjoy this while you can."
"But we get to make fun of Garrus the whole time."
"Ha! I'm in!"
"We get out of this," Garrus said, "I'll sing-along the whole way through."
That got everyone laughing. "Oh my god," Kasumi said. "We've got to pull this off now. Tali? Get busy in there! We've got things to live for!"
Garrus chuckled. Even if it was at his expense, everyone was loosening up. The situation was still tense, sure. But there was no sense of doom like before. He peered through his scope. "Just remember, no matter what happens, I've got all of your backs..."
Tali looked up briefly as laughter once again filled the squad comm channel. The dour silence was gone and the change in mood welcome but she couldn't let anything distract her from the task at hand.
She gripped the sides of the console as another segment of code took its time to compile. It wasn't the geth hardware that was at fault, but rather the exotic interface Cerberus laid on top of it. Archer may have been a gifted scientist but his understanding of geth architecture was woefully backwards in some areas. As the application stalled once again, she wondered how long it would take her to write a command line interface to replace it..
Using her omnitool helped as she was able to do some code validation there, but it provided its own distraction. Its outline pulsed red like the geth data traces on the walls and floor, but for a different reason. Her omni had switched to emergency mode upon receipt of a fleet wide emergency broadcast, just as it had done when the Rayya was destroyed. It would display the message until an all-clear signal was received. There was no way to clear it locally, either. The problem was that someone in authority had to declare the emergency over, and all but one of them was dead.
Admiral Daro'Xen vas Moreh's message was broadcast to any quarian in range, but it was intended for one specific person, with just one line of text:
Save your people Tali Zorah vas Neema.
The message flashed at the top of her omni regardless of which application was open. It was impossible to ignore, just like the original copy of Xen's virus which would place the geth under quarian control once and for all.
She turned to another one of the console's holo screens and conducted a search to make sure none of the remnants of Archer's code remained. The last thing she needed was for conflicting instructions to further corrupt the geth consciousness. The next consensus command they received had to be absolutely consistent, or who knows what might happen?
Save your people Tali Zorah vas Neema. Xen's message stuck in Tali's mind like its own virus. During the Normandy's mad scramble to Ma-at through an uncharted relay, Legion had asked her what she would do if the quarians succeeded in infecting the geth collective. She couldn't answer. If the quarians had control of the geth, starvation from the loss of the Rayya, factional turmoil within the fleet, keeping three-century old technology running all went away. What quarian wouldn't want to see that happen?
"Contact!" Garrus shouted over the comm. The laughter over the tactical net ceased immediately. "Geth infantry, far end of the corridor, one hundred twenty meters."
Tali looked up from the console. At the back of the corridor, Garrus was the only one of her friends in view. He lay alongside his massive rifle behind a disabled geth platform. In the vacuum of the hub, there was no report as he fired, only flashes from its barrel which lit the corridor. A second later the entire corridor flashed white like a strobe as the rest of the squad joined in and incoming rounds sparked off the walls.
She looked back at the console. The compiler reported 95% progress. In a few seconds, she could upload the virus and the assault would be over. She lifted her omnitool to prepare the virus package for upload. But which package should she inject? What of all the quarians who died protecting the Migrant Fleet in exile from their own homeworld? The countless friends, countless shipmates lost to the geth, family, her father?
What of her crew, her friends, her family who were now defending her with their lives so she'd have the chance to stop Cerberus? What would she do if Shepard were here now? Was there any question? Or Legion... the one sentient entity in the universe that risked the most to ending the war between the geth and their creators because it wanted peace more than anyone else?
Save your people Tali Zorah vas Neema.
Tali began to hyperventilate. Her suit responded by automatically adjusting the internal oxygen mix. Taking control of the geth was the only guaranteed way to preserve what was left of quarian civilization, but there was another option. What if she took control just long enough to stop the geth from counterattacking? To give the the Migrant fleet time to withdraw? She could then upload the restorative version afterward. She'd have all the time in the world to make things right.
Or would she? Xen's virus placed the Admiralty Board in control of the geth, meaning Xen herself. Was Xen even still alive? If she was, and had control of the geth, she'd never let go of them. The steps she'd taken on the Anba proved how far she was willing to go to keep them.
If the last Admiral was dead, who would they follow? Would the geth defer to Tali or any other quarian? Would they stop their attack on their own? If the quarians took control of the geth, would they ever release them? Or would Tali be responsible for enslaving the entire collective again? Would that be so bad, if it meant that the quarians would survive?
Was it worth risking the future of her people find out otherwise?
"Geth prime! First intersection, on the right!" Miranda yelled.
"On him!" Kasumi responded. "They're coming up the left hand corridor, too!"
"Grenades!" Garrus shouted. "At the intersection! One at a time! Keep a steady stream!"
Artificial lightning from the arc grenades produced dazzling, jagged patterns of light on the corridor walls. Particle beams and a hail of projectiles streaked back forming a haze of particulate glowed white. The compiler reached 99%. "Oh gods, come on," Tali pleaded. She huddled over the console, her omnitool out, ready to upload, Xen's message flashing before her eyes.
"I'm out!" Kasumi's call over the comm crackled with static.
"Front rank, fall back!" Garrus shouted. There was a scream. "Kasumi's down!"
"Cover me!" Miranda shouted.
Zaeed yelled as he fired. "Move it, Lawson!"
Tali stared at the frozen progress meter, her heart pounding, both sets of code loaded into her omnitool. Save your people. The geth wanted peace. They initiated contact and the quarians used it as bait for a trap. Then the Rayya was destroyed and the rest of the galaxy was going to nothing while the quarians starved... and the geth came back to help. She'd asked Blue, and effectively the entire collective, why they changed their minds. What did their creators have that the geth wanted? Blue replied with a single word. Forgiveness.
"They're right on top of us!"
Garrus dropped his Mantis and rose to a crouch, pitching his last arc grenades down the corridor before switching to his Vindicator, firing quick bursts. "Pull back! Pull back! Grunt, do it!"
"Go," Grunt's shout was punctuated by static and the entire corridor flared white, now completely filled with smoke, silhouetting her friends as they spilled into the control chamber, firing as they came through. Miranda staggered through first carrying Kasumi over her shoulders, their armor cracked and smoldering. Then Samara came through, carrying Zaeed with one of his arms around her shoulder. The mercenary kept firing the entire way, letting go just as he reached the corner where he propped himself up to maintain fire. Samara stood next to him, eyes glowing blue as she hurled one mass effect field after another around the corner. Jacob and Garrus back-peddled in, their rifles spitting out heat sinks as fast as they could be replaced.
The progress bar on the console stayed frozen at 99%. Tali searched for the door control. With the squad retreating, there was no harm in trying. The huge metal door began to slide shut, then stopped. The geth weren't going to allow it.
"Grunt!" Garrus yelled. "Fall back! Grunt!"
The big krogan dove through the opening, his armor scorched on every surface and coated with white conductive fluid. The remaining squad found what protection they could behind corners and columns and emptied their weapons into the smog.
Compilation complete, read the console.
Tali stared at both copies of the virus on her omnitool. There was only one right choice. She injected her revised code into the console from her omnitool and pressed 'execute.' The holo screen replied operation complete. What happened next, for everyone, would be up to the geth. She leaped through the holographic screen, over the console itself, shotgun in hand. Before she'd taken two steps, Chikktika rezzed in next to her as she charged to the firing line. She slammed back against the column where Garrus had taken cover when all of the sudden, the firing stopped.
"Anybody have a target?" Garrus asked. From behind the column, he could only see a few meters up the corridor.
"Negative," Jacob said from the next column over.
"Nothing but piles of junk," Zaeed said from the corner. "Can't see shit because through this smoke."
Garrus checked his tactical display. There was no movement anywhere within range. He looked at Tali, who gave him a quick nod. "Reload, gather up what you can, just in case. Miranda, check Kasumi!"
"Right," the ex-Ceberus operative knelt next to the unconscious thief, her medkit in hand.
"Everybody stay put," Garrus said. He stepped over to Zaeed and poked his head around the corner. A wall of smashed geth platforms lay on the floor, sparking and spraying clouds of vapor into the corridor, adding to the haze. As the particulate settled, the haze dissipated, revealing a field of blinking yellow lights suspended in the air.
"Goddamn," Zaeed murmured as the fog continued to thin.
Garrus let his rifle fall to his side. Tali walked up next to him, still holding her shotgun and peered around the corner. The entire corridor from side to side was filled with geth platforms; unarmed maintenance dones,cargo loaders, a squat looking model on treads with a giant mining drill... Mixed in were the combat platforms; shock troopers, rocket platforms and giant red prime models which towered above the rest, carrying weapons usually found on armored vehicles. Behind them, a pair of armatures crouched on their spindle legs to fit in the corridor. Every single geth platform was frozen in its tracks. Their main apertures, glowing red during the attack, now all blinked soft yellow. The flashing lights faded in the distance into the depths of the haze as far back as any of the Normandy squad could see.
"Jesus," Jacob said, joining the group at the corner. "Gotta be hundreds of them."
"Maybe a thousand," Zaeed said, sounding as astonished as anyone had ever heard.
Garrus looked at Tali. "What happened to them?"
"I don't know," Tali whispered. In all her years of researching geth, she'd never seen anything like it. "Warm boot, maybe."
"Doesn't matter," Garrus said. "We've got to get back to the Xenophon."
"Keelah," Tali squeezed the grip of her shotgun. Her heart began to pound again. "Shepard and Legion!"
Jacob gestured toward the geth with his rifle. "Think we can make it to the Kodiak while they're asleep?"
Garrus shook his head. "I don't know if we can get through all of that. But we've got to try. Grunt?"
"Start clearing us a path. Miranda? How's Kasumi?"
"Bad," Miranda said, still kneeling over her wounded shipmate. "Shot through the back, multiple penetrations. I've stopped the bleeding, but she'll need help soon."
"She's not the only one," Jacob tapped Zaeed on the back and pointed to his leg where gas spewed from a crack. "You're venting, man."
Zaeed looked down at himself. His armor showed impact marks from head to toe, but his left leg showed definite penetration. "Shit!"
"We all are," Samara said. True to her words, small plumes jetted from fractures and seals from just about everyone in the squad.
"Let's get ready to move," Garrus said. "We'll make repairs on the shuttle. Miranda, stay with Kasumi. Tali-"
In unison, the field of flashing yellow lights stopped, then turned bright blue-white. The geth platforms stabilized themselves, while ones that had fallen over picked themselves up.
"Cover!" Garrus shouted, and the squad scrambled behind the columns to take aim at the corner of the corridor, ready to fire. But no targets presented themselves. Seconds passed.
A familiar mechanical voice broadcast over the squad net. "Allied squad, cease fire. Request permission to approach."
Garrus lowered his rifle. If the geth were truly friendly once more, there was only one way to find out. He motioned for his friends to stay still and took a step toward the corridor. If this were some kind of trick, it wouldn't matter. They wouldn't survive another assault. He stood with his rifle at his side and found himself staring into a sea of blue-white camera eyes, all looking back at him.
A single geth platform, similar to Legion, stepped forward from the mechanical army. Garrus tensed when it reached out for him. An omnitool appeared around its wrist and it set about repairing a crack in the shoulder of Garrus's armor.
"Alert," the geth voice said over their comms. "Multiple injuries sustained by allied squad. Pressure integrity compromised. Condition of Goto-Kasumi critical. Request permission to assist."
"Permission granted," Garrus said, relieved. "Go!"
A wave of platforms spilled into the console chamber, patching holes in the squad's armor and huddling over Kasumi to stabilize her as best as they could. The heavy platforms, including the combat models, began to clear the corridor of debris.
"Let's get ready to move," Garrus said. He paused, not knowing how to address the machines. "Uh, geth? Help us get Kasumi to the shuttle."
"Wait!" Tali shouted. Garrus didn't seem to realize it, nor did anyone else because they weren't used to thinking like the geth, but their greatest chance of saving their friends was standing right in front of them. She grabbed the nearest platform in arm's reach and spun it toward her. Such action wasn't necessary in the least as all she had to do was talk, but as an organic, it was instinct to establish eye contact to convey the importance of verbal communication.And, as an organic, Tali couldn't keep the tears from building in her eyes as she leaned in close to the bright white aperture in front of her. "Help Shepard!"