In the cockpit, Joker's hands jumped from panel to panel as he tried to coax a response from the helm. At an earlier point in their relationship, he would have accused EDI of interfering with the interface just to mess with him. But now he knew that the primary maneuvering and propulsion systems were truly dead.
Shepard's sprint from the briefing room ended behind Joker's chair. "Why aren't we moving?"
"Main reactor's offline," Joker said. "I got nothing here."
"There has been an explosion in the port side fuel cell compartment," EDI announced. "The resulting power surge has knocked out connectivity with all systems below deck three. Attempting to bypass. Radio communications from crew members indicate uncontained fires on the engineering sub-level and hangar deck."
Shepard glanced up to a tactical display. The leading enemy target was two hundred kilometers out on the opposite side of the derelict, with three more spaced in a line behind. The energy signature identified them clearly as oculus. Just a pair of the collector drones had done significant damage to the Normandy when she was healthy. Against four in its current condition, the ship was doomed.
"What hit us?" Shepard asked.
"The damage is not the result of enemy fire," EDI replied. "The explosion coincided with when we engaged kinetic barriers and charged weapons systems without the reactor. An overload of the power system is the most likely explanation."
Shepard stared at the damage control display as Joker worked frantically to find maneuvering power. All of the repair progress of the last day had just come undone at the worst possible time. "How long until the first oculus can get a shot?"
"Three minutes, ten seconds."
"Missile capacity?" Shepard already knew the answer, having personally reviewed ship's stores, but there was always the chance for human error. Now he prayed for it.
"Our guided ordinance is still expended," EDI said.
"Engineering!" Shepard called over his comm. "Tali, what's the status on the main reactor? We've got hostiles inbound!"
"The reactor's still down, we haven't completed repairs-"
Shepard watched the lead oculus track grow closer on the threat display. "How long to get it back up?"
Tali's voice sounded more than a little worried. "Five or six minutes, from a cold start! Shepard, emergency bulkheads have come down and sealed us in here! What's going on? Shepard!"
As much as he hated to put his chief engineer on hold, without propulsion they had to look for another option to get the ship moving. He turned back to his pilot. "We got anything at all?"
"Just the docking thrusters," Joker said.
"Use 'em!" Shepard shouted. "Get us around this hulk so we can get off a shot!"
Joker switched over to the reaction control jets which dotted the ship for fine control. He computed the shortest distance to the edge of the derelict and programmed in the course. "Fantastic, I love going into combat in slo-mo. Much more dramatic this way."
"Get us moving, Joker!"
"On it, Commander!"
"Commander, there are still crew outside," EDI said.
"Tell them to hold on tight," Shepard yelled.
"EVA personnel," EDI's voice's echoed in Grunt's helmet. "Brace for maneuvers."
Tiny plumes of glowing gas erupted towards the periphery of the ship. Disoriented from his tumbling, Grunt could see the hull of the ship sliding away even faster now, even though the nearby derelict remained still. The Normandy was on the move, leaving him behind. "Shepard! Anyone! This is Grunt! I'm loose from the ship! I'm drifting!"
He then felt, rather than heard, a jarring snap from behind. He twisted around and tried to reach his back with his hands, but the joints in his environment suit wouldn't articulate that far. In the dim light, he could see a thin cable spiraling into a wide coil back towards the ship.
At the other end, now over fifty meters away, the tiny human female stood with her boots locked to the hull. She slowly played out slack on the emergency tether so when the ship's movement caught up with Grunt, it might keep from snapping the hardpoint on her suit or tearing it apart. The remote-controlled, single-shot guided grapple could latch onto almost any surface, but was designed to pull a drifting spacewalker safely back to a ship, not the other way around. The specs of both the grapple and her suit would be severely tested when she tried to reel in the big krogan.
"I got you!" she cried over the comm. "Hang on! Hey! Grunt's still alive! Get your hooks on him!"
"What about Goff?"
"He's gone, man! Get the krogan!"
Grunt looked around again to see three other surviving members of the EVA crew. Instead of heading for the airlock, they too stopped where they stood on the hull and fired their own grapples toward him. While they couldn't all pull in the same direction, the shock when the cables went taut would be split four ways. He twisted his head to look for the suit light from the luckless crewman decapitated in the blast. It flickered as the body tumbled end over end into the darkness. It disappeared quickly from view as his torso wrenched violently backwards and he felt himself accelerating back towards the ship. Unlike the dead man, Grunt was not destined to become a satellite in the great celestial graveyard.
"Goddamn piece of junk! Open!" Gabby pounded the emergency override switch on the hatch to the drive chamber with her fist. The forward hatches to the engineering sublevels and the main lift were similarly sealed. On reflex, the ship was isolating critical areas to contain damage. Her chief was trapped on one side of one door, her best friend somewhere behind the other. She could only hope the ship knew enough to protect both of them.
Thane tried not to double over from the coughing fit that suddenly hit him. Now more than ever his friends needed his help. He closed his eyes and focused on his breathing, and the spasms subsided. He inhaled shallowly and slowly let the breath out, and found himself once again in control. He looked to the left at Gabby's power console, where a cascade of readings turned from green and yellow to red. "Miss Daniels..."
She did not hear him. "Forget the door!" Tali shouted over the intercom. "Begin the cold-start procedure for the main reactor!"
"But the replacement parts aren't in place," Gabby protested.
Tali's voice was uncommonly agitated. "Start the procedure, that's an order! Stop when you get to the activation sequence!"
"Son of a bitch," Gabby muttered. She brought up the startup checklist on Tali's console and initiated the procedure. Half of the safety measures had already been invalidated, but in a combat situation where the ship could not move or fire, safety wouldn't be an issue for long. She keyed the manual override as each protocol was bypassed. It would be a miracle if they didn't incinerate themselves when the fusion reaction began.
The unattended power console, now glowing red across the board, sounded an alarm that Gabby had never heard. She looked right for its source when she was blinded by a bolt of lightning from the port side, which turned Thane into a dark silhouette before her eyes. Instinctively she flung her arms in front of her face as the air around her turned to acid, burning every centimeter of exposed skin. She dropped to the deck, screaming, but even that stopped as her lungs caught fire from the dark grey smoke that now filled the compartment.
Without organic guidance, the consoles in the room waited patiently for an override command that would never come.
"Time to oculus intercept: one minute," EDI said calmly.
"Come on, you son of a bitch!" Joker pitched and yawed the Normandy so the maximum thrust vector was applied toward the edge of the shielding derelict. The small engines were all in danger of overheating, but he maintained power.
Shepard, forsaking the use of his comm unit, shouted aft down the corridor. "Hadley! Have you got a firing solution?"
"Aye sir!" came the reply. "But the Forward Battery is not responding!"
Where the hell is Garrus, Shepard thought? There was no time to track him down. "Transfer control to EDI and fire as soon as we clear the derelict!"
EDI continued her countdown. "Time to intercept, thirty seconds."
Shepard flung a handful of sweat from his brow as he turned back to the helmsman. Outside the cockpit window, chunks of debris drifted past at an agonizingly slow pace. "We gonna make it?"
Joker shrugged without taking his hands of the controls. "Sure, unless you feel the need to make this more challenging. Maybe cut off life support next? How about a blindfold? Fifteen seconds!"
Shepard scowled at Joker but raised his eyes to the overhead windows. The jagged edge of the derelict hull was drawing close and Joker had managed to point the Normandy's nose toward where the oculus would appear when they cleared their defensive obstacle. The remote sensor drones maneuvered along with the ship and fire control had a confirmed lock on the target. Normandy's guided munitions had been expended, so the line-of-sight weapons were all they had left. From there, mathematics would take over.
Grunt's feet connected with the hull of Normandy on the ventral side just forward of the auxiliary airlock, next to where the three closest EVA team members stood. With ample time to prepare, he angled his legs downward, which cushioned much of the blow at the same time preventing him from bouncing back into space. His crew mates released their tethers once it was clear he was secure on the hull. They were mere steps away from the hangar deck's personnel airlock.
"Move your ass!" one of them shouted over the comm.
Grunt turned to see the female who had originally latched on to him with her grapple still fifteen meters away. Behind her, the blown out sections of hull still flared with sparks and flashes of electricity arced into space. Her steps were slow, uneven and labored as she traversed the distance, hampered by the attractive nature of the soles of her boots. It was like running through a meter of sticky mud. They could hear her labored breath as she progressed. "Get inside," she said between gasps. "I'm right behind you!"
A false dawn erupted over the lower hull of the Normandy and the backside of the derelict as the ship's Javelin launcher sent parallel bursts streaking across the derelict's hull into the distance. The female flinched and stopped in surprise, but staggered forward in spite of the intense glare.
Weapons fire, Grunt thought. The battle has begun. With a mighty roar that caused his crew mates' comm systems to mute temporarily, Grunt stormed across the hull towards his savior, the attractor plates in the soles of his boots no match for the tendons and muscles of his legs. Similarly, the binding mechanism in the crew woman's boots was insufficient to withstand the krogan's strength as he plucked her from the deck where she stood and charged back toward the waiting airlock.
"Target destroyed," EDI announced in the cockpit. "Secondary target will acquire firing capability in twenty-two seconds."
"On it!" Joker shouted, slowly skewing the ship about on multiple axis to provide the greatest power from the docking jets.
EDI highlighted the course of the second and third oculus on the tactical display. "We have sufficient power for two more volleys."
"Tali!" Shepard shouted. "We can only hold them off for another minute or so. How's the reactor? Tali? Tali! Engineering, respond! Daniels, Donnelly, pick up!"
"Done!" Jacob shouted, standing up from the access panel in the flooring and moving one to the right. He had no idea what circuitry he had replaced or what it did, but the modules fit in the slot just like Tali said and showed green on his omnitool so he moved to the next one.
Before he had shifted positions, Legion signaled Jacob's success. "Module 665-D, integrity verified."
"Finished here!" Kasumi said, also switching positions.
Tali stopped the connection of an auxiliary power coupling long enough to check her omnitool. "Looks good. Move on to the next one!"
As Garrus, Jacob and Kasumi moved in a ring around them, Tali and Legion huddled in the aft section of the compartment next to the shaft leading to the ship's fusion reactor. Tali's heart pounded in her ribcage. They had been given three minutes to initiate a sequence that, by the book, took at least ten to complete safely in an undamaged, perfectly operational configuration and six minutes in emergency situations. For Shepard to risk it in half the time, she knew they were well past the emergency stage.
Much like EDI, Legion was ten steps ahead of her when it came to calculations and configurations concerning the magnetic bottle that kept the reactor's energy from incinerating the rest of the ship. Letting the geth take control of the sensitive calibrations would have been unthinkable a month ago, but now she trusted the machine more than herself to handle the delicate calculations that would make the difference between nearly unlimited power and oblivion while she concentrated on physical repairs.
"Containment field stabilized," Legion said. "Power loss registered from H-cell units six through twelve. Compensating with starboard power cells."
"Ok, we're set here," Tali said to her friends. The massive power loss, though, was disconcerting. She keyed her comm. "Gabby, where are you in the startup sequence? Gabby?"
Thane lifted his head from the deck in engineering. Red and yellow strobes projected sharp cones of light as they swept through the air, now filled with a fine, powdery smoke. Mucous streamed from his eyes which seemed to be full of the same grit. He recognized the sounds of warning sirens, but they sounded far away.
He felt the surface of his jacket crack as he brought himself to a crouch and felt a strange coolness against his skin. Through blurred eyes he saw his jacket was torn open completely, and the cracking sensation was his own skin, blackened and peeled back revealing moist pink tissue deep underneath. The burn stretched the length of the right side his body, from head to foot. He knew he should feel pain, but there was none.
The deck and wall next to Gabby's power console looked like his skin, cracked from floor to ceiling, its edges ragged from an explosion, melted smooth in other places from what had to be incredible heat. More of the powdery soot billowed into the compartment from beyond and fell like snow.
He shambled towards Gabriella's unmoving form on the floor. Her skin and clothes were covered with the dust which caked around her nose and mouth. She clutched a respirator in her right hand, pulled from a compartment near Tali's console. He knelt next to the unconscious woman and slid the mask clumsily over her face. With his vision blurred and senses numbed, he couldn't tell if she was dead or alive.
He took a breath. Unlike before, the motion came smoothly and easily, with no gag reflex. But based on what he could see of the air and the thick paste around Gabby's nose and mouth, he was undoubtedly poisoning himself with every breath. Much like the burns on his body, he just couldn't feel it. He whispered a short prayer of thanks.
If there was one respirator available, there might be another. He propped himself against the console and looked around. He should do what he could to keep the damage to a minimum.
"Gabby!" Tali's voice seemed be coming from the next room. But he shouldn't be able to hear her from down the corridor and through the safety door. "Can you hear me? Hit the override! We're ready to start the reactor!"
Thane blinked several times to clear his vision. Tali's console looked even more complex than Kenneth's, with twice the number of gauges and feeds scattered all over the screen, all of them flashing and chiming for attention. On top of several windows, however, was one labeled "Emergency Startup Procedure." It had a series of green check marks next to tiny text that he could not read, but the interface was clearly waiting for one final press to proceed. He poked the virtual button with a charred finger and the window switched to a mechanical schematic showing a containment field and temperature readings. Had he hit the right button?
"We're hot!" Tali's voice screeched over the intercom on the console. "Tell Shepard we're back on line! And then get this damn door open! Gabby?"
Thane opened his mouth to answer, but felt a gentle spasm in his chest. A gurgle of thick fluid dribbled over his lip, a mix of saliva, blood and toxins which had no taste nor temperature in his mouth. His legs weak, Thane sat down on the floor and leaned against the wall. You have been an agent of death for so long, he thought. You have earned a painful, violent death... yet Kalahira has seen fit to set you free from your body peacefully so that your mind may be clear.
Uncounted memories flooded his mind, all forcing their way into his consciousness. For the first time ever, he was able to stop them, thinking only of the future. Of Kolyat, who was now free to live a life of his own choosing... and of his friends aboard the Normandy, who still had many battles to fight in spite of the great victories already won. But they would live to fight them. Arashu, watch over them all, he thought as his eyes lost focus. Grant them the peace in life that you have graced me in death...
"We're back in business!" Joker shouted and transferred power to the main thrusters.
Shepard's eyes jumped between damage control and the threat board. Each on their own spelled certain death if they stayed much longer. The remaining oculus were almost in striking range. If there was ever a time to live to fight another day, this was it. "Punch it, Joker! Make for the relay!"
The Normandy flipped on its tail, all four antiproton thrusters flaring silently to life. The giant scrap of a derelict that had acted as her only safe harbor disintegrated into a cloud of sparks from temperatures hotter than the sun. Other than the shower of glowing debris, the only other marker of Normandy's passing was a human corpse cartwheeling away, the recipient of the greatest wake no one would ever see.