Legion climbed through the hatch to the laboratory on deck one. No longer interfaced with Xenophon's systems, it no longer had a positive track on any of the Cerberus soldiers on the ship. Its internal sensors and those on its drone would have to fill the gap.
The Xenophon's control center was empty with a large number of enemy casualties located against the aft wall. Ten meters in, at the opening to the neck of the ship, a pair of Cerberus Centurions fired up the length of the corridor as four more Centurions leapfrogged their way up the bridge.
"Port side! Port side!" The frontmost Centurion called out. "He went left!"
"Hit him again!" shouted another, and a cluster of stun grenades launched into the cockpit, making the forward end of the corridor flash with light. Shepard-Commander's status feed showed his armor had lost power and was experiencing heavy disruption of regular neural function. "He's down! Move in! Move in!"
Legion's sensors mapped out the position of the enemy targets. It could not take on six of the Cerberus troops on its own. Shepard-Commander's average recovery time from being stunned over the last sixty-four engagements was 12.53 seconds. Legion directed its drone forward at maximum velocity, sending shocks into each of the Centurions as it passed, and coming to a halt directly between the two approaching the bridge hatch.
T+1/1 second: the Centurions ducked for cover at the sides of the corridor the sight of the unexpected attacker. While the lead Centurions were disciplined enough not to fire on the glowing ball of light between them, they had stopped their advance, which is what Legion intended. Kneeling low, the rearmost enemy troopers took aim at the intruding drone.
T+3.05. The Centurions continued to fire at the ball of light. Legion sought cover behind the laboratory hatch and calculated firing solutions on all six of the enemy soldiers with data augmented from the drone. It scanned the status of the enemy targets and from EM analysis determined that the middle soldier on the left had the weakest output from his kinetic barrier.
T+4.26 The combat drone sparked and fizzled as it lost cohesion. Legion maintained its aim on the head of its designated target but paused. A quick simulation indicated Legion could penetrate the soldier's helmet immediately, but its processes predicted that the organics would require an additional 1.2-1.7 seconds for their squad leader to issue a verbal command to press on to Shepard-Commander's position. Drawing premature attention would upset Legion's plan, so it briefly diverted its runtimes to analyzing the Xenophon's reactor state and what would happen once it failed.
T+5.36. The Cerberus squad leader raised his arm to wave his troops forward. Legion fired an aimed burst at its pre-selected target and by T+6.21 the armor on the human's head cracked, split and exposed the soft organic tissue within. Legion's target dropped to the deck, resetting the Cerberus decision timer, adding 2.5-3 seconds of confusion as the Cerberus forces recognized that they were being attacked from behind and reacting accordingly.
T+8.50 seconds: To further encourage the Cerberus forces from advancing further on Shepard-Commander's position, Legion's processes directed their platform to stand in the middle of the hatch for maximum visibility. Idle processes resumed their assessment of the Xenophon reactor and cooling systems while the rest took aim at the closest target as the humans turned slowly around to face him.
"Taking fire," one of the soldiers shouted as they once again ducked for cover. "Aft hatch, starboard!"
Leading up to T+10.44 seconds: Legion sprayed fire selectively between its targets to give them the impression they were each being targeted to encourage them to stay in place rather than advance. Legion successfully brought down another Centurion's barrier before the soldier dropped from sight, but the others were now committed to attacking the geth facing them from the middle of the aft hatch. At the center of fire from the five remaining targets, Legion's own barrier collapsed and his newly-repaired armor sparked and smoked with a dozen hits.
T+12.29 seconds: the Centurion furthest away from Legion became enveloped with flame so intense it melted the panels of the nearby console. Legion's processes responsible for external sensors examined the infrared signature of the blast and matched with 99.99666% certainty as one of Shepard-Commander's inferno grenades. As the Cerberus soldier spun in place, his nearby companion fell face-first against the deck as slugs from Shepard's rifle burrowed through her armor. The Cerberus squad was now caught in a crossfire between the two Normandy crew.
By T+38.56 seconds, all six enemy targets lay crumpled on the deck next to their dead shipmates.
Legion kept its weapon trained on the downed Cerberus soldiers as Shepard closed the distance between them. He ducked through the hatch, swept the lab for targets, then knelt next to Legion in the hatch. Just like Legion, Shepard's armor was streaked and cratered from dozens of impacts. Legion's new armor now looked almost as beaten and ragged as when they first met on the derelict reaper.
"Thanks," Shepard said, in obvious pain and out of breath. He wanted to say more, but here was no time in an organic scale to convey anything other than vital information. The deck rumbled beneath his feet, and the yellow warning lights illuminating the command center switched to a pulsing red as the ship neared its end. "You get control of helm?"
"Negative." Legion replied. "Xenophon's cooling system is less than four minutes from failure. We must evacuate immediately."
Shepard pointed back to the hatch. "Deck two, forward of the AI Lab. Archer has a private launch. It might have enough shielding to get us out of here."
Shepard peered down the ladder of the aft hatch and dropped, rifle raised. Legion dropped right behind him. Acting as one, Shepard and Legion advanced up the corridor, their weapons switching from doors to corners as they went. They stepped over the corpses of the Cerberus troopers Shepard had encountered before and paused at the hatch Tali had sealed earlier, which now stood open.
A low rumble boomed through the ship, and another klaxon began to wail. The Xenophon yawed suddenly, then corrected, sending both Shepard and Legion crashing into the wall and each other.
Legion pulled Shepard to his feet. "Xenophon's secondary systems are beginning to lose power. Reactor failure imminent."
Shepard shook his head as he staggered forward. Legion never missed a chance to state the obvious. Red lights reflected from the polished white floors and walls of the ship. With the deck shuddering beneath their feet, they passed another set of labs as the corridor bent inward. It ended in an open security door at the centerline marked Airlock - Authorized Personnel Only.
A middle-aged man in a Cerberus science uniform braced himself spread eagle in the middle of the open hatch, his neck craned as he watched for other survivors. When he saw Shepard, his eyes grew wide.
"No! Wait!" Shepard shouted. The man's hand slapped the switch next to the door. Shepard fired, dropping the man to the deck, but it was too late. The door sealed shut. "Legion!" Shepard pointed to the airlock control panel and rushed to peer through a rectangular window to the right of the door. Instead of a hangar, the docking port was open to space at the nose of the ship. Beyond, a gleaming white runabout, slightly larger than a Kodiak, was attached by its port side tp a docking collar and clamps. Wide bay windows lined its hull, and Shepard could see the pilot looking over his shoulder at him from the bubble cockpit. Five other members of the Xenophon crew all stared at him through their windows, terror in their eyes. Though he couldn't hear them, they were all screaming for the pilot to launch as they readied personal weapons and defenses… except the airlock was still attached and docking clamps still in place.
"We have terminated launch clearance," Legion said, its omnitool glowing in front of the control panel.
Shepard couldn't take his eyes from the runabout's pilot. The man's uniform indicated he was from Engineering, and the way he haphazardly worked the controls told Shepard something bad was about to happen, "Get back!" Shepard grabbed Legion's shoulders and yanked the geth platform away from the airlock hatch.
The corridor flashed white through the as the runabout's main thrusters fired. The airlock mount squealed and snapped, peeling the forward bulkhead away from the nose of the Xenophon as the runabout pulled away. Under full power but still connected by a strip of twisting metal, the runabout turned nose first back to its mothership and slammed headfirst into the bow. The airlock frame finally failed, and the runabout's tangled mass tumbled back toward the rear of the ship, leaving a trail of sparks and debris as it went.
An emergency barrier snapped in place where the airlock used to be and Legion and Shepard found themselves staring into Ma-at's milky white corona. The entire ship was in a slow roll, like a side of meat on a barbecue spit, trying in vain to keep one side of the ship from overheating and burning through. A new series of alarms squawked through the air, trying to overcome three separate alarms now wailing for attention.
"Escape pod," Shepard said and retreated up the corridor without missing a beat. "We'll eject from the side of the ship when it's away from the star, use the Xenophon as a shield."
Legion followed Shepard to the starboard corridor leading back into the ship. The deck heaved and bounced them once again. "Shepard-Commander! Xenophon's physical hull will provide cover from direct rays to a distance of only fifty meters along its minor axis. Escape pod shielding insufficient to protect occupants during escape."
Shepard stopped in front of a small, bright yellow hatch in the starboard wall marked EMERGENCY ESCAPE. The Xenophon's reactor was about to overload, killing both of them. Or it would shut down, causing its shields to collapse allowing Ma-at to incinerate the ship, killing them both. Staying aboard wasn't an option. "I want those fifty meters," he shouted as the opened the escape pod's hatch. "We'll have to time it just right. Let's go!" Shepard peered outside the pod's front window. They were on the side of the ship facing the sun and he squinted into the light. "What the hell-?"
The corridor lights flickered and the mass effect field generating light and gravity on the deck winked out. Legion's actuators strained to find a grip as the corridor rolled around it. The ship's motion spiked in another dimension and hurtled the geth forward up the length of the corridor away from Shepard and the escape hatch. It smashed headfirst into a bulkhead then tumbled all the way through the gap left by runabout's ruined airlock. Legion grasped the ragged edge of the hull and pulled itself back into the ship. The acceleration ceased, but the gravity did not re-activate. Small debris spun and flipped in the air, illuminated by Ma-at's corona beyond the emergency barrier.
Legion oriented itself and scanned its surroundings. "Shepard-Commander," it said over the tactical net, but there was no response. There was no signal from his comm, nor was his position available. In free fall now, Legion righted itself and propelled itself back toward the escape pod, the light from its main camera aperture casting long shadows amidst flashes from the remaining emergency lights. Shepard-Commander was nowhere to be found. It rebounded around the curve to find the hatch leading to the escape pod sealed. The holo panel indicated that the pod had launched. Shepard-Commander had ejected from the ship.
Legion's head flaps expanded and its superstructure went rigid as all 1,183 processes registered Shepard-Commander's absence. Another explosion shook the ship as Legion bounced around in front of the closed hatch, debris now careening from all directions. Shepard-Commander had made the only logical choice, even if it would prolong his life by only a few seconds after Xenophon was destroyed. But Shepard-Commander had never left any of the Normandy collective behind when only his life was at stake. Why had Shepard-Commander abandoned Legion now? Legion's programs struggled to formulate an answer as the Xenophon, close to death, moaned and creaked around him.
With no ability to archive, Legion's consciousness would die with the ship. But in the time remaining, what could they do to prevent it? The geth inside Legion considered the alternatives, and proposed a course of action for consensus: they would seek out alternate means of escape.
A single geth program, responsible for visual imaging, proposed a different course of action. Shepard-Commander never abandoned a member of the Normandy collective. Therefore Shepard-Commander could not abandon Legion, but was acting with intent to return. That being the case, the best chance for survival for the Legion collective would be to remain where Shepard-Commander expected to find it. Relocating to another position of the Xenophon might result in the destruction of them both when Shepard-Commander returned.
Consensus achieved. Legion's processes ordered the platform to hold position and await the return of Shepard Commander, simultaneously overclocking its location beacon to increase detectability for nearby sensors. It retreated from the hatch and braced itself against the opposite wall, positioned for maximum visibility and stability as the ship continued its death throes.
The emergency hatch, designed never to open if the pod were missing, exploded in front of Legion. A cluster of blue-white circular lights at the end of elongated metal heads stared back at him. Three-fingered hands reached out and yanked him through the hatch. Legion found itself in the middle of a cluster of geth platforms outside the Xenophon's hull, all huddled around the open hatch as they hauled Legion through. A geth shuttle hovered just meters away. Beyond, another vessel eclipsed Ma-at's deadly rays. A bulky geth ship half the size of Xenophon paralleled the Cerberus ship's course, providing its own shadow to protect the shuttle as it recovered its precious cargo. But like the Xenophon, its heat radiators burned white as they tried to fend off the star's power.
The swarm of geth jumped across the gap, maneuvering Legion quickly across the open distance into the shuttle's waiting cargo bay as Xenophon's hull splintered beneath them. The shell of the once mighty Cerberus ship melted away layer by layer as its shields gave way, turning into a superheated stream of plasma that boiled into space.
The shuttle's cargo hatch closed. The lights from a dozen geth platforms illuminated the small bay which contained the geth and the small pill-shaped life pod from the Xenophon. A lone organic pushed his way through the gaggle of geth to reach the mobile platform at their center.
"Legion!" Shepard said. "Can you hear me? Are you okay?"
The geth collective broadcast directly over the Normandy tactical frequency. "Mobile Platform One was positioned where you indicated, Shepard-Commander. Recovery successful."
Shepard gave a relieved sigh. "Sorry I took off like that," he told Legion and nodded toward the other geth platforms. "I had to get their attention somehow and tell them where you were."
"We anticipated as much," Legion said. "We knew you would not leave us."
Shepard reached out to give his friend a pat on his red-striped shoulder and grinned at the circle of machines surrounding them as as the geth shuttle returned to the safety of its mothership. "Damn, it's good to have all of you back."
Quarian runners flowed through Anba's command and control center like a river, delivering updates that could no longer be relayed by the ship's overloaded comm systems. The civilian ships of the flotilla continued to stream toward Dholen from Raheel-Leyya as they would for days to come, as expected. But what no one in the Migrant Fleet predicted was that the Migrant Fleet Navy would come screaming back from Dholen in retreat, colliding with the advancing civilians at Nariph, resulting in the greatest traffic jam in galactic history.
Nariph was home to a lone human fuel depot, now under quarian control to sustain the invasion. In addition to bleeding the depot dry, ships of the fleet pulled hydrogen and helium directly from Nariph's gas giants, processing fuel as quickly as they could to get it to the front line. But it soon became apparent that there wouldn't be many ships to refuel after all.
Reports from the Navy continued to trickle in with each returning ship, scattered and separated from their battle groups, each telling the same story: the geth collective deactivated en masse, presumably as a result of Admiral Xen's virus. The entire Migrant Fleet Navy Heavy Fleet, some six thousand ships, seized the opportunity and jumped to Tikkun to systematically annihilate every geth ship within range. But there were far more geth ships than Fleet intelligence estimated, or could even imagine. Even with the geth deactivated, it would take the fleet hours to destroy them all.
Then in the midst of the offensive, the geth re-awakened. What started as a turkey shoot for the quarians turned into a massacre by the geth as the networked machines coordinated a counterattack that left the quarian battle groups scrambling for their lives. Acting as one, outnumbering the Navy by a factor no one could even calculate, the geth decimated the quarian ranks in minutes.
Their lines shattered, their communications disrupted and their leaders killed, the quarian ships at the rear broke formation and fought their way back to the Tikkun relay. When when they reached presumed safety Dholen to regroup, a second geth fleet was waiting for them.
Less than half the Heavy Fleet ships escaped Rannoch, and so far, fewer than a hundred made it back to Nariph. If the geth decided to press the attack, the civilian fleet would be slaughtered.
High Captain Wylo stood in front of a giant display board at the front of Anba's Command and Control center. He gripped the console in front of him in despair. He and the other captains of the conclave managed to spread the word back up the line to Sahrabarik to halt, but some ships didn't receive the warning and rushed on to Dholen, and death, instead.
Many ships that did stop only did because one of the fleet's two remaining liveships had done so. The second liveship was still at the rear, supplying the back end of the convoy at Sahrabarik. A disorganized swarm of quarian ships now clustered at the fuel station and the gas giants and swirled around the Nariph relay awaiting instructions.
"We've got to position ourselves for retreat," Wylo said over the command net. "If the geth attack now, we're finished."
Captain Fasha asked the question on all of the minds of the Conclave. "Retreat to where? Raheel-Leyya? Omega? We're finished no matter where we run! Without protection, if the geth don't end us, the Terminus will! We have to move forward, on to Rannoch!"
The comm channel burst with thousands of captains in the Conclave trying to speak at once. Once more, protocol failed, with those who had legitimate authority trampled over by the faction and clan leaders who could shout the loudest. The channel fell silent, however, when a deep, authoritative voice broke over the line.
"This is the Shellen. We are declaring Liveship Priority. As soon as our tenders have completed refueling at Jonus we will begin transit to Balor at the Caleston Rift."
"You can't do that," said another voice. "Your cargo belongs to the entire fleet. The liveships must remain in bastion until the heavy fleet re-constitutes and-"
"There is no more heavy fleet! The safety of the liveships is the highest priority. Any captain interested in survival will rendezvous with the Shellen at the fuel station and form up for transit!"
Wylo lowered his head. That was it. With one statement, what little semblance of unity left in the fleet vanished with the declaration by the largest of the two remaining liveships to venture off on its own. The rest of the fleet could either join them or go hungry, depending on what each captain and crew would decide to do.
"High Captain?" Captain Mirron pushed her frail body as hard as it could to reach Wylo through the crowded deck. As they watched, the fleet organizational display showed ships begin to clump into distinct groups, all headed in different directions.
Wylo closed his eyes and shook his head. "It's over for us, Sanul. This is the end."
A loud, harsh buzz sounded in CNC. Wylo and everyone else looked immediately to the main sensor display. The Dholen relay registered a mass effect field building that indicated hundreds of thousands of tonnes transiting through. Unless the Heavy Fleet had made a remarkable recovery, it could only mean one thing.
The geth were coming. The comms board came to life with shouted orders as panicked captains ordered their ships away from the relay. Remaining Navy ships, battered and exhausted, tried to form a defense to screen the retreating civilians. In the midst of it all, a single, giant contact now dominated the threat screen. A geth dreadnought, larger than any vessel in or ever encountered by the Migrant Fleet had jumped in at the edge of the fleet.
But it did not maneuver or fire, nor did it arrive with an escort. Instead, the giant cylinder of a ship spun like a spindle in space, illuminated by scores of flashing beacons and running lights. Instead of jamming their transmissions or otherwise invading their computer networks as geth ships had always done, a lone transponder squawk echoed throughout the Migrant Fleet using Migrant Fleet standard protocols. A name appeared on the screen of every vessel now targeting the intruder:
In the Normandy's shuttle, on the surface of Orbital Body 413319, the squad watched in silence as Garrus hunched over the cockpit console. Rolston leaned to one side so Garrus could manipulate the Kodiak's transceivers. A trio of geth platforms worked silently on Kasumi as she lay face-down on the aft bench, utilizing the shuttle's full medical kit and their own mechanical precision to tend to her wounds. Jacob, Samara, Grunt stood in the hatchway to the cockpit behind Miranda who blocked their advance to keep them from crowding the turian. Zaeed paced behind them all.
"Uh huh," Garrus said, half of an unheard conversation with the geth after Garrus figured out how to talk to them directly. "Uh huh," Garrus said. "I see. I see. Okay then. Thank you." The turian stood and turned around to lean against the console to face his shipmates. "Shepard and Legion are fine. The geth just plucked them both off the Xenophon."
A wave of relief washed over the Normandy squad members. Samara closed her eyes, giving a silent moment of thanks. Zaeed just grunted, while Jacob shrugged at the big krogan standing next to him. "Told you they'd be all right," Jacob said.
"Ha!" Grunt laughed. "He kicked their asses is what happened."
"What about the Normandy," Miranda's expression didn't change, but inside she was ready to collapse with relief with the news that Shepard was alive.
Garrus didn't want to ruin the festive mood but shook his head. "Dead in space. But Joker says only a few casualties, burns and some vacuum exposure, but everyone made it. Could have been a lot worse. The geth are moving in to assist."
The Normandy squad all looked at one another. Miranda finally broke the silence. "Someone should tell Tali," she said, looking at Garrus, who usually turned out to be that someone.
Garrus peered out the Kodiak's cockpit window to the asteroid's dark surface, where a pair of lights circular lights shone in the darkness toward each other at head level. One was constant and bright, the other flickered in time to the speech of its owner. "We will," he said and watched Blue and Tali for a moment. The two had more pressing matters to deal with. "As soon as they're done out there."
Tali and Blue faced one another in the dark outside of Normandy's shuttle. When the geth assault at the hub ended, the entire squad rushed Kasumi back to the Kodiak where medical equipment and an oxygen atmosphere were waiting and to get an update on Shepard and the Normandy. But communication with the geth was spotty and inconsistent as hundreds of thousands, if not millions of independent geth programs within range all tried to contact the Normandy crew at once. The transmissions, sent without any uniform format or centralized control overwhelmed their comm systems with the same repeated messages.
We are sorry.
Every one of the geth involved in the attack at the hub apologized independently from one another to each of the Normandy squad, effectively drowning out all other communications. It got to the point where the organics couldn't even broadcast to one another. Consensus finally reined them in and the radio spectrum fell silent. As the Normandy crew reached the shuttle, a familiar entity appeared amid the gaggle of geth platforms that followed the organics back to the Kodiak. Mobile Platform Two, deactivated after Cerberus delivered it to the asteroid to infect the hub, was back online, providing coherent single point of contact as it was designed to do by the collective.
Even though it had not participated in the battle, Platform Two looked as beaten down as the rest of them. Once sleek and shiny, segments of its carapace had been removed by Cerberus, revealing tubes and points of light in its chest cavity. What armor it had left was crisscrossed with scratches and cracks from explosions when the squad assaulted the Cerberus position, all covered with a layer of fine black dust kicked up from the surface of the hub. Though damaged like the rest of the Normandy collective, it was operational. While the rest of the crew stepped inside to tend to Kasumi, Blue and Tali remained outside. As far as the geth were concerned, interfacing with Creator-Tali'Zorah now had the highest priority.
"Creator forces misinterpreted the collective-wide suspension of our runtimes as a successful deployment of Creator-Admiral Xen's virus," Blue explained. "The Creator Heavy Fleet transited to Tikkun and immediately set course for Rannoch. When we came back online, the Creator Fleet was at the center of the largest concentration of geth ships in the system. We counter-attacked in force. Creator vessels attempted to retreat to Dholen but were intercepted by additional geth forces arriving from Ma-at. Losses to the Creator Heavy Fleet were extreme."
"Extreme," Tali repeated. "How many...?"
"Six thousand, one hundred and three ships were destroyed. Eighty-seven avoided destruction and retreated to Nariph where they rejoined the lead elements of the Creator civilian fleet in an attempt to solidify a defensive position. Our fleets merged at Dholen to follow the Creator Fleet's course back to Raheel-Leyya with instructions to eliminate the creator threat once and for all."
Six thousand ships, Tali thought. The entire Heavy Navy, the bulk of the flotilla's defenses, had been annihilated. After Xen's betrayal, the geth condemned the entire creator species to extermination, the Illusive Man said. It wasn't revenge, but logic. Cold, hard logic, to prevent the quarians from ever retaliating again... the same logic that resulted in the tomb that was her homeworld. Her stomach churned with nausea as she listened.
Platform Two's flaps expanded and contracted. "As we processed simulations to ascertain optimum efficiency for attack, we analyzed the code injected into our network to prevent further attempts at infection. We discovered two versions of the virus. The first was specifically engineered to place the collective under Creator control. This code matched the virus used to infect this mobile platform aboard the Creator vessel Anba."
"Xen's doing," Tali said.
"Acknowledged," The geth buzzed and clicked where it sat. "Creator-Admiral Xen followed established creator behavioral patterns by attacking when she believed she had the advantage."
"Just tell me...What happened to the rest of the fleet? Did you attack them too?"
"We did not. There was the second set of code to be considered. Timestamps and file versions on your omnitool indicate you modified Xen's code prior to injection at the hub." The geth looked at Tali. "You could have assumed control of the entire collective. Instead, you rewrote the virus to return control of consensus to us. We judged it unconscionable to use the freedom you bestowed upon us to destroy your people."
"You let them go?"
"Keelah..." Tali looked into the sky above with a relieved sigh. The Migrant Fleet had survived. As a quarian, she had been conditioned her entire life to believe nothing else mattered. "Thank you."
"We thank you, Creator-Tali'Zorah."
"Where are they now?"
"The Migrant Fleet is scattered at the relays from Nariph to Raheel-Leyya. We dispatched Liveship Four to augment Creator food production and to encourage them to consolidate in a single location."
"Really?" Tali shook her head. "After everything that's happened you still want to help us?"
"We do," Blue said. "But the Creator fleet has been reluctant to approach the liveship."
"Well, they probably think it's a trap. Do they know the war is over?"
"We do not know."
Tali stared in disbelief, then lowered her head. "Communication's never been your strong suit, has it? Maybe I should talk to them. Would that be possible?"
If a geth platform could show relief, Blue would have done so. "Of course. With your permission, we will interface with your suit's communicator and route them through our network. Stand by for uplink."
"And while we're at it," Tali opened her omnitool to configure her suit's comm system for open access. "I'd like to see if we can get negotiations going again. Pick up from when we were interrupted."
The geth's flaps undulated around the perimeter of its head, seeking consensus. "There is no further need for negotiation. We have achieved consensus. If the creators agree to a cease-fire, the homeworld is yours."
Tali swayed, suddenly dizzy. Under the glow of Ma'at's corona, on the dark side of a burnt cinder of an asteroid, the geth platform reached out to steady Tali as she caught her breath. It scanned her vital signs to ensure the spell was not the result of the considerable damage her physical platform had sustained, but she was not suffering any physical loss of control. Yet Creator-Tali'Zorah continued to lean against the geth. Consensus dictated that it provide support until she was ready to stand on her own.
Now a safe distance away, Ma-at appeared as a bright white disk in the blackness of space, casting Normandy in a warm glow as the Kodiak jetted by on its final approach to the hangar deck. The entire squad huddled around the port window to get a view as they shuttle flew past. They watched in stunned silence at the sight of their mortally wounded ship drifting past.
Dark burns slashed across every surface and spall marks pimpled every meter of the hull. It was impossible to even tell what color the Normandy had been originally. Worse, her starboard wing assembly and engine nacelles were missing, with only a lip of ragged metal and conduits remaining on the fuselage.
Then there was the perfectly circular black hole topside aft, in front of the pair of vertical struts. At some point in the battle, the Normandy's mass effect core went supercritical and last-ditch safety protocols kicked in. The hull above the core compartment blew open and a purpose-built mass effect field propelled it away, sparing the ship from certain destruction but leaving it dead in space.
Kasumi lay on her stomach on the aft bench, her armor removed and her back covered in bandages and medigel. She turned her head to look at her friends standing in front of the window. From their expressions, she could tell their beloved ship hadn't fared well. "How bad is it?"
Garrus turned away just long enough to glance at Tali, who only shook her head as she continued to stare out the window. "Bad," Garrus said.
The compartment fell silent as the squad took their seats and the Kodiak slid into a hangar deck filled with debris. The overhead lights flickered with power surges, and the aft half of the deck was completely dark. A geth shuttle rested on its landing gear on the starboard side.
Tali and the others remained on the benches when the shuttle landed and the side door opened. Doctor Chakwas climbed into the crew compartment, omnitool out, followed by a pair of geth drones left behind to assist Gabby. Chakwas examined Kasumi's wounds, talking gently to the thief the entire time before instructing the geth to move Kasumi via stretcher up to the infirmary. Everyone in the squad offered quiet assurances to her as she was carried out, and looks of concern turned to smiles as Kasumi began to laugh as she crossed the Kodiak's threshold.
"Oh, I don't know what you gave me, Doc," Kasumi giggled, "but it's goooood."
Once the sole casualty was evacuated, Garrus motioned to everyone else that they were clear to disembark. Exhausted, Tali waited in her seat as the others gathered their gear and filed through the door, but she still craned her neck to peer out to look. Between the shifting forms of her shipmates, she caught a glimpse of the deck outside. She'd learned that Shepard was alive from the geth while still on the asteroid. But when she saw him standing there, at the base of the ramp, greeting each of his returning crew as they got off the shuttle, she closed her eyes and whispered thanks. For the first time since watching the Xenophon disappear outside the shuttle window as they descended to the asteroid, a sense of calm settled over her.
She stood, made sure her weapons and gear were secure, and dropped from the Kodiak's door onto the Normandy's deck to join the rest of the squad as they gathered around their commander. As usual, everyone had to pretend that everything had transpired was no big deal. It was a ridiculous game they had to play, especially Garrus and Shepard. The worse the situation they faced, the more they tried to pretend it didn't matter.
Garrus was well into it by the time Tali joined the circle, but she stayed on the outside. The turian crossed his arms. "Well, I hope you and Legion had a nice time doing whatever it was you were doing while we were down on the hub fighting for our lives."
"Yeah, it was a great time." Shepard looked down at his armor, cracked and burned all over, then at his friend's relatively untouched ensemble. He looked at the others in the squad. "So did Garrus actually do anything down there or was he hiding behind his sniper rifle, as usual? I mean, everybody else here looks like they got shot at."
Garrus waited for the laughter to die down. "You know, there's a school of thought that says the warrior with the fewest scars is actually the better fighter."
Shepard turned his head to expose his right cheek and rubbed the undamaged skin with his hand. "Oh, is that right?"
After a few more rounds of insults and laughter, Shepard finally started issuing orders again. With the ship in the shape it was in, there was plenty for everyone to do. As the squad dispersed, Tali waited patiently for Shepard to notice her.
When he did, he wore a tired smile as he approached. His armor was a complete disaster and his eyes were ringed with exhaustion. "Nice work down there, Tali."
"Well you know," Tali stammered. As much as she hated when the others downplayed the danger they faced, she followed right along. "I did what I could."
"Oh yeah," Shepard said. "Saved your people, saved the geth. Saved me and Legion... All in a day's work, right?"
"Yeah," Tali looked away, embarrassed. "Um, where is Legion, anyway?"
"Up in Engineering, giving Gabby a hand. You should get up there, she's worried sick about you."
Worried sick, Tali thought. Shepard had no idea what that meant. "I'm glad you two are okay. When we left you… I mean both you and Legion on the Xenophon… I- I'm glad it all worked out."
"That's an understatement. I understand the geth have offered to let the Migrant Fleet go home. Is that true?"
"Yes," Tali did look at him now. Her efforts to keep from turning into a blubbering idiot were still working, but just barely.
Shepard shook his head, astonished. "How'd you manage that?"
Tali shrugged. "They did it on their own."
Shepard watched Tali for a moment, then nodded. The light in his eyes dimmed, and his smile faded. "Listen, Tali... EDI's given me a preliminary damage report, what she can tell from what few systems she can still reach. It doesn't look good." He pulled up his omnitool and sent a series of scans to Tali's omni. "We may have to abandon ship."
"Oh my," Tali said when she saw the initial display. The disappearance of starboard engine assembly was bad enough on its own and the mass effect core was irreplaceable, but the worst had finally happened. The ship's frame, weakened from the crash on the collector base, had finally given way. The Normandy's back was truly broken. "Well... Let me take a look before we decide to do anything drastic, okay."
Shepard nodded. "I wouldn't ever make move without hearing from my chief engineer. But it's bad isn't it?"
"It is," Tali said, shutting off her omnitool. She looked about the ruined landing bay, with its emergency barriers and flickering lights. In the middle of it all, the Normandy crew were already spreading out to fix again what had been broken a week before. Mixed in with them were geth platforms, working side by side with the organics. The geth seemed like they couldn't wait to repair the damage they had caused. She smiled at Shepard. "But it's not hopeless. We have help."
"Thanks to you."
No, Tali was about to say, it was all because of you, but before she could spit the words out, the ship's PA squawked to life.
"Commander," Joker's disembodied voice echoed in the hangar. "You down there? The geth have gotten us through to Arcturus. Admirals Anderson and Hackett are on the line."
"Oh thank god," Shepard let out a relieved sigh. "For a second there I thought you were going to tell me the Council was calling."
"Yeah, well, Udina's on the line too."
Shepard's head drooped sharply. "Shit."
"Sorry. You, uh, want me to arrange a pre-emptive malfunction? Kinda hard not to with the way things are up here, actually."
"No, they need to know what's going on. I'll be right up." Shepard shook his head. "Here we go again."
Tali tried to sound chipper, not wanting to add to the strain Shepard was obviously feeling. "Back to business as usual, huh?"
"Guess so," Shepard said. "Get me your assessment as soon as you can." He gave Tali a pat on the shoulder as he walked past her toward the elevator. Miranda was waiting for him by the door, datapad in hand with a to-do list a thousand lines long.
Tali watched him for a few seconds, then followed behind. Her own message queue was full of messages and automated alerts from the ship's systems, and more were coming in from Legion and Gabby as well.
But, considering the alternative, she was thrilled to have deal with each and every one of them, no matter how serious they were.