Outside the Normandy, space-suited figures huddled over the open gashes in the ship's hull like surgeons, welding and sealing her wounds, making her whole again. Black charred edges gave way to straight lines of new hull plates grafted over damaged sections, restoring the integrity of the hull, and more importantly the heat dissipating arrays that helped keep the ship cool. No one wanted to relive the sweltering hell they'd recently endured.
They were not the only ones hard at work, though. Two fine filaments of cable, less than a centimeter in diameter, stretched fore and aft from the ends of the Normandy. Hundreds of meters long and nearly invisible in the dim red light, they reached beyond the edges of the giant derelict that shielded the Normandy from the intense radiation of the collapsed star at the center of the accretion disk. Over the millennia, the uncountable dead hulks had settled into semi-regular orbits around the black hole, disturbed only when orbits brought to objects into each others' path, or a ship unlucky or unwise enough to attempt the transition in-system added itself to the galactic junkyard.
The debris field was therefore easy enough to filter out once the orbits had been determined by the targeting systems aboard the ship, and made the sensor track of a group of objects on an intercept course stand out like meteorites on a dark night to the Normandy's sensors. Inside, both machine and man took instant note that they were no longer alone at the center of the galaxy.
Ken snorted as he picked up his tool webbing. "Ain't that the way? First I have to fight off being replaced by a robot, now it's an assassin taking my job." He, Thane and Gabby all stood in front of his console on the engineering deck, though he was the only one suiting up for work. "Don't worry. Gabby will tell you what to do," Ken told the drell. "She's an expert at that."
Gabby shoved Ken aside and stood in front of Thane. "That's because any monkey with an omnitool could do this nitwit's job. Basically you stand here and push buttons and make dumbass remarks. It'll take you five minutes to pick it up. Maybe less, because you actually got some class."
Thane examined the the complicated display and said nothing. Fully half the squad had reported to engineering to assist in repairs. He could have gone with them to the core, but his technical skills were far behind most of the specialists on the ship. But if he had any chance of getting back in time to see Kolyat, every waking moment had to be spent getting the Normandy operational. He would help, no matter how menial the task - especially if he could free up a more important crew member for more important repairs.
"But seriously," Gabby said, gesturing at the board. "You just need to watch these indicators and let me know if anything goes into the yellow or red, or call out any information anybody asks for. Propulsion's offline while they're working in there, so don't worry about hurting anything."
Ken shook his head. "Except my pride, but who cares about that?"
"Are you still here?" Gabby asked.
Ken snapped her the most sarcastic salute he could manage before taking Thane's hand and giving it an enthusiastic shake. "Sorry mate, she's all yours. It was nice knowing you."
Thane watched the human exit through the forward hatch and disappear down the stairs. He knew Donnelly's remark had been in jest, but given his condition he couldn't help but wonder if that might be his final farewell to any of the crew. There had been no time to explain to any of them, or even those few he considered to be friends that his life would soon be at an end.
Given the ship's current status, the same could be said for all of them. No one could afford to waste time. He turned back to the propulsion console. "You were saying?"
Commander Shepard sat at the head of the briefing room table and pondered what exactly he was going to tell the crew. Sorry, all leaves are canceled, he thought. Your lives are on hold, again. We all had plans, but we're going to have to put them aside just a little longer. And if you survive this round, maybe then we'll make it up to you. Or maybe we will have made no difference at all and we'll just have to do it all over again. Any questions...?
God, he was tired. They all were. Maybe once the repairs were done and they were ready to get underway, he'd order an eight-hour stand down for the entire crew. Out here at the galactic core, there was no one to disturb them since they held the only key to the relay. Couldn't the rest of the galaxy deal with their own problems for that long?
That line of thought disintegrated with EDI's sudden appearance above the table before him. "Shepard, sensors are recording multiple contacts bearing 243, declination 045, range 269 kilometers, closing fast."
All signs of exhaustion disappeared as Shepard whirled in his chair and ran for the CIC, with Miranda close behind. Stimulants and implants non-withstanding, adrenaline was still what got him moving the fastest. His speech would have to wait. Hopefully, he'd still get the chance to make it. "Sound battle stations!"
Tali stepped gingerly over the 60cm-wide flexible tubing that snaked across the deck of the drive core compartment. Bypassed ducts and conduits turned the floor into an obstacle course. Behind her, Legion, Kasumi, Jacob and Garrus followed, each of them balancing a box of parts and tools in their arms as they navigated along, listening as she explained the work to be done. "Once the shutdown is complete, each of you go to your assigned components and start the replacement procedures. Just follow what you see on your omnitool. When you get done with one, call Legion or myself over to check it and move onto the next one. Most parts will fit only one way and just plug right in."
Garrus' foot caught the edge of an exposed cable as he stepped over a duct and he fell to his knees, but he managed to keep his box upright as he dropped to the floor with a crash. Everyone in the chamber turned at the sudden sound to see the embarrassed turian lying on his chest. He made no attempt to get up as he caught his breath. "Housekeeping isn't one of your strong suits, is it Tali?"
"Dexterity isn't one of yours," Tali shot back.
Garrus looked up to see Kasumi holding her hand out to him, grinning at him underneath her cowl. He took her offered hand and pulled himself to his feet. "Fine, except my dignity. Thank you, Kasumi."
"Nice form, Garrus," Kasumi said as they both picked up their cargoes. "But you need to work on your dismount. You know, it's funny, the same thing happened on Fleet and Flotilla. This turian was walking with his quarian girlfriend along a stream in a botanical garden when he snagged his foot on this big, flowered vine and fell in. Got his suit all dirty, but he came up covered in blossoms, which he then presented to his love. It was precious."
Garrus glared at her. Apparently, the only thing that spread faster on the ship than news of the geth negotiations was gossipabout him. He could see lines of text popping up on Kasumi's omnitool messenger. Someone was prompting her. Jacob and Tali were in the compartment, but had their hands full. That left only one suspect. "Tell Mordin that when I'm done here, I'm going to teach him the difference between flammable and inflammable."
"Oh, I'm sorry," Kasumi said, hopping nimbly between the tubework on the ground. Upbeat by nature, she sounded particularly pleased with herself. "I hope that wasn't a spoiler for you."
A warning klaxon echoed from multiple speakers. EDI's synthetic voice, tranquil by design, spoke calmly and levelly. "Battle stations. Battle stations. All hands to battle stations."
Tali whirled around at the announcement. "EDI! We just took the main reactor offline! We can't-"
Just then, a metallic bang echoed throughout the chamber, and the lights flickered throughout the room.
Kasumi looked over at Garrus, her smile gone. "What the hell did you trip over?"
Garrus gave Tali a nervous look. Shepard had told him to follow her orders, but during combat his post was elsewhere. "Go!" she shouted to him. He dropped his box and vaulted over the conduits towards the exit.
"The rest of you stay here," Tali yelled, dropping her own tools. "We've got to get these lines secured and get the reactor back online!"
The deck below their feet shuddered and a loud pop sounded in their ears as they struggled to stand upright. Garrus tripped again as he launched himself towards the hatch to main engineering. He caught a glimpse of Gabby on the other side, darting from her power console to Tali's station on the starboard side as the giant emergency bulkhead door slammed shut in front of him. They were trapped.
Tali's eyes swept over the sphere of the Tantalus Core. The sensitive equipment didn't respond well to power fluctuations. "Gabby! We just had a power surge here. What's going on? Gabby?"
Outside the ship, Grunt followed a diminutive human female across Normandy's belly, pushing a great sail of a deck plate in front of him. Outside the ship's mass effect field there was no gravity nor air resistance so he maneuvered the three-by-five meter slab of composite material with ease. Even though there was no weight, there was still mass and inertia, and Grunt had the strength to counteract both. When the team inside the hangar switched him to the hull detail, he was disappointed. But his transportation of hull plates outside the ship was cutting down the time to install one of the giant patches by a third. That he was doing the work of several humans made him especially proud.
Together they walked toward the junction of the port wing, the sky filled with the neighboring derelict above them. The lights from their suits danced in its shadow as they moved.
"Okay," said the spacesuited woman, indicating a newly cut rectangular gap in the surface of the ship. Grunt tried to remember her name, but could not. He hated to admit it, but most of them looked alike. Pinning his companions with a species label worked well when there was only one of each on the ship like the turian, quarian, asari and drell... But the humans were everywhere.
The woman pointed toward the hull. "Okay, this is good right here. I'll help guide it in."
Grunt braced the grip soles of his boots at shoulder width and wrested the hull section slowly down into place. The unnamed woman gingerly guided it to the surface from her end. "All right, easy... easy..."
Her voice suddenly dropped out, replaced with EDI's voice. "All hands to battle stations. All hands to battle stations. EVA crew return to hangar deck immediately."
Grunt turned halfway toward the hangar deck, one hand still on the replacement plate. If there was going to be a fight, even one between ships, he would be damned if he was going to miss it. Zaeed was right, he thought. We make holes. We don't fix them!
"Grunt-" the nameless woman said.
He took one step when his vision glowed red then just as suddenly faded to black. He never liked the feeling of zero-gee, but now his entire body was enveloped by a sickening feeling of free fall. The smoke around his helmet cleared and the universe tumbled around him. As the lower hull of the Normandy spun by, he caught glimpses of deck plating fluttering away amidst a black cloud jetting from underneath. Bright blue streaks of lightning illuminated the dark cloud as it billowed outward.
His human companion lay against the hull next to an erupting volcano with her arms over her face while her boots remained attached to the surface. The tension in her legs made her body spring back up but she still kept her head guarded. She staggered backwards and tried to regain her footing.
Ten meters away, another human in an environment suit flipped limply end over end away from the ship. White gas mixed with red mist sprayed from the gap where his faceplace had been, illuminated by his suit lights and leaving a whispy trail behind the corpse as it twisted into space. Whatever trauma had bean dealt, death was at least instantaneous.
Grunt's comm sputtered and dropped out as he spun. "...explosion in engineering!" "...fire in the hangar deck!" "...decompression, deck four, portside!"
His velocity was only ten centimeters per second, but with no thrusters on his environment suit he was powerless to do anything except flail hopelessly as the ship slid further and further out of reach. Though his survival depended on thinking rationally, his eyes locked on the dead man's open face mask to see blood bubbling within, streaking his helmet red before it froze. All of the strength in Grunt's limbs and all of the redundancies built into his biology through science and millions of years of evolution were absolutely worthless in the vacuum of space. He could hardly hear the continuing warnings and status updates over the radio for the rush of air in his ears. It took him a second to realize that in the confines of his own helmet, it was the sound of his own breath.
For the very first time in Grunt's short life, the fear of death enveloped him as the ship grew more distant with every passing moment.