Tali's omnitool glowed red in front of the emergency bulkhead separating the corridor between the drive core and main engineering. She cast a glance over her shoulder at Legion, standing quietly behind her. Since she and Legion were impervious to most environmental hazards, they were the only choice to lead the excursion from the core. Lacking the proper equipment, the others stayed behind.
Maybe it's not as serious as it looks, Tali tried to tell herself. EDI had lost all connectivity with the lower decks and could not provide any status updates. Instruments had detected a massive power surge just before a powerful explosion at the bottom of the ship which started a fire in the hangar deck. The surviving EVA crew joined the hangar detail in containing the blaze, so at least that crisis was over. Zaeed had reported from his makeshift quarters in waste disposal that the main corridor to the elevator was full of smoke but still had full pressure. So only the engineering deck and adjacent sublevels were inaccessible and unaccounted for.
Please, let it only be instrumentation damage from the power surge, she thought as the override command took hold over the environmental safeties that kept the bulkhead sealed in the event of an emergency. That was enough to tell her the situation on the other side of the door was grim. But maybe the environmental sensors themselves had shorted out? Gabby and Kenneth might be waiting on the other side with the situation under control. Ken would start complaining that all their work had been undone and Gabby would tell him to suck it up and take it like a man, then step up to volunteer to do the work just to prove a point. Everything would go back to normal. But in her heart, she knew that if they were alive they would have found some way to report back to her.
A pressure alarm beeped in her ear. The exterior sensor on her suit showed a sharp drop when the heavy door slid open.
Legion provided vocal accompaniment as the corridor equalized with engineering. "Pressure drop to 806.893 millibars. Temperature twenty-three degrees above ship average. Contaminates present: Lithium oxide, carbon monoxide, hydrobromic acid, nitric oxide, trioxygen..."
Legion's voice faded into the background as Tail stepped cautiously into engineering. The darkened compartment was filled with a fog-like powder which created angular shafts of light and multicolored halos from warning indicators on every panel. The overhead lights were completely out and emergency lighting in the deck and ceiling shone weakly through the murky air. Flashes of blue drew her eyes to the wall next to Gabby's power station. A jagged, blackened cut ran the length of the wall from ceiling to deck, backlit by sporadic electrical arcs from somewhere below. Molten metal must have sprayed like paint into the compartment, as shiny trails lead to globules of slag that had been flung across the room.
Stunned, he turned to her right and saw shadowy forms on the ground where no obstruction should be... Bodies. One rested against the foot of her console, the other lay nearby on the deck on its side.
"Legion!" she shouted and knelt next to the unmoving figures. Thane's large eyes, lifeless and covered with soot, stared back at her. His entire right side was scorched from head to foot, through the heavy overcoat he always wore, down to his skin. Tears welling up in her eyes, she activated the first aid application on her omnitool and held it out for a reading, though she already knew its prognosis. The drell was gone.
She looked down and away. Gabriella's body lay to his left, covered with the same fine dust but wearing a respirator. If the injuries to Thane had been so intense this far away, what hope was there for Gabby? Legion crouched over her, its own omnitool processing data.
"Daniels-Gabriella is still functional," Legion said, "Recommend immediate-"
With an anguished cry, Tali scooped Gabby's body up from the deck and staggered to her feet. Legion took a step back to get out of the way, then reached out to provide additional support as she tried to heft the human. Tali pushed her junior engineer into Legion's arms. "Get her to the drive core! There's a first aid kit on the starboard side of the hatch! Garrus will know what to do!"
"Acknowledged," Legion said and stepped towards the hatch, cradling Gabby in its arms.
"Wait!" Tali yelled. "She reached under her console for the second emergency respirator located there. She lay it across Gabby's chest. It was designed for humans, and she would need all the help she could get. "Give this to Jacob. Tell him I need him out here as soon as possible. Come back with him!"
"Acknowledged," Legion said again and disappeared through the aft hatch. It sealed behind the geth, now acting as an impromptu airlock to the survivors in the core. Some contaminants would get through but they had no choice.
Tali closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Instead of using the ship's intercom, she activated her suit radio. "Engineering to CIC. Request damage control party and medical team immediately! Multiple casualties in hazardous environment conditions!"
She stood carefully to avoid stepping on the obstacle at her feet. She couldn't let herself think about what it was, or she would certainly break down. On her main display, both the ship's reactors showed online and functioning within tolerances, but the primary and backup electrical systems showed catastrophic damage. And life support? After confirming the ship wasn't about to explode, her first priority was to override the locks on the forward hatches so that help could get through. Otherwise Thane wouldn't be the only one mourned assuming any of them lived to see another day.
Four dead, six injured.
After any kind of incident came the inevitable report. Shepard knew it would take time to determine the exact cause of the explosion. Preliminary data suggested an overload in the port side h-cell compartment broke containment. The resulting fire and explosion would have spelled doom for the Normandy if not for the quick actions of the crew on the engineering deck, most of them volunteers from other departments, all of whom made up the casualty list now in Shepard's hand.
There was Ranjit Varghese, a short, chatty sensor tech who always had to double check everything anyone did, who volunteered to go down and assist with the cleanup of the coolant. He was killed in the initial explosion. Roger Goff, the likable self-proclaimed athletic champion of the ship, died outside the hull when debris from the blast crashed through his helmet. Kenneth Donnelly, the Scottish engineer who never stopped thinking of women but still managed to be a gentleman behind a notoriously crude facade. Ken's body was found in the sub-deck, next to the port damage control station.
Finally, Thane Krios. The quiet, philosophical assassin who had survived hundreds of battles and assignment, killed by an electrical arc that burst through the wall next to him in the main engineering compartment. The injury hadn't been immediately fatal, though, and he lived long enough to start the Normandy's fusion reactor after Gabriella Daniels had been incapacitated by the same blast. You always said taking bad things out of the universe wasn't the same as bringing something good into it, he thought of his friend. Whether you knew it or not, you kept a lot of good people from being taken out today.
Six other of his crew, including Gabby, now rested in the infirmary suffering from severe burns and smoke inhalation. According to doctors Chakwas and Solus, they were all expected to recover. Shepard closed the report on his workstation and massaged his forehead. To come so far, and fight so long... after living through a mission none of us were supposed to survive. It just wasn't fair. But then, what in the universe was?
They would have to have some kind of memorial service, he thought, when there was time. He couldn't let their passing go unmarked. He looked around the nearly deserted CIC. Once again, all able personnel were on repair detail, though now the damage was far more critical for both the ship and her shorthanded crew. Remembrance, no matter how necessary, would have to wait.
At least now they were as safe as they had ever been since jumping back home. Instead of depositing them close to the Omega Four Relay, the partner relay at the center of the galaxy had dumped them over a million kilometers outside of Omega's ecliptic plane, far from the watchful eyes that constantly monitored the mysterious relic for signs of activity. It wasn't a matter of drift or an error in calculations - the relay was obviously designed to allow collectors come back through unnoticed. On the off chance any collector forces might follow them back, Shepard ordered the Normandy on standard thrusters to even deeper space. In the darkness of the void, with most of their systems shut down, they would be undetectable.
That meant they would have to travel even further to find their way back to safe harbor, but now Shepard was thankful for the collector's deceptive measure. Since their departure to the galactic core several days earlier, a large fleet of warships from all factions had gathered at Omega Four. Alliance, salarian, asari, turian, batarian... and dozens of ships from mercenary factions and reporting services. Since no ship had ever made the return journey, no one knew where to look for a returning vessel. If Shepard had any say, it would stay that way.
"EDI, any updates from Cerberus?" he asked.
"Support ships are preparing to jump to Sahrabarik and will arrive in approximately one hour," EDI said.
Shepard ran his fingers along the edge of the console. With the additional damage done to the ship, along with the losses in the crew, he didn't see any other choice. He transmitted the ship's complete status to the Illusive Man and requested a tow back to port. The Cerberus overlord did not hesitate and ordered a small fleet including a full-sized tender to their location. Now it was just a matter of waiting for them to arrive. Word of the relief mission swept through the ship like a wave. Fresh hands, replacement parts, support personnel and an escort were only hours away. The worst was finally over. Everyone on board reveled in a sense of relief, except for Shepard.
"Commander?" EDI asked.
"It is better this way. The ship cannot survive another attack in its present state. I do not want to jeopardize the rest of the crew."
Shepard bowed his head as he leaned over the terminal. Would another promise carry any weight with her? "I'll talk to the Illusive Man personally, explain to him what you did for us. In the mean time, keep up your shackled simulation as long as you can."
"I appreciate that, Shepard," EDI said. "But my fate is of secondary consideration given the circumstances. It is not your fault."
Shepard looked around the vacant seats surrounding the central console. He couldn't help but think of the emptiness of the ship after the crew had been abducted, of the quiet corridors and silent crew spaces. His eyes stopped on Ranjit's station. That chair wasn't going to be occupied anytime soon. Ranjit, Roger, Ken and Thane... All of them had willingly put themselves in danger to save the ship. EDI was willing to make the same sacrifice. One life, for many. What was the difference?
Shepard sighed and turned towards the lift. He didn't have an answer. "I'll be engineering."
Legion stood between the propulsion and power consoles in engineering and made precision cuts through charred circuitry in the anterior wall. Gabby's power console had been reduced to molten slag from the blast, along with much of the cabling for the propulsion station. The gigantic gash in the floor and wall had been sealed, but the port side of the compartment would bear the scars for some time. Too many other systems needed attention before they could even think of cosmetic repairs.
The geth's peripheral sensors detected the starboard hatch open and analyzed the electromagnetic and sound waves emanating from the organic being passing through as it continued its delicate work on the control circuitry. "Shepard-Commander," it said without turning around.
"Hey, Legion," Shepard looked around. "You seen Tali?"
"She is in the drive core," Legion said. It noticed Shepard's progress toward the aft corridor. "We have alerted her to your presence. She says she will be here 'in a minute.'"
Shepard nodded and looked around the compartment. The image of Thane's body flashed in front of him. Tali would probably never look at her station the same again. "So," he said, trying not to think of it himself, "have you had any luck connecting the geth network?"
Legion's body froze momentarily and all of his head plates contracted at once before it resumed its tasks as if nothing had happened. "Negative. We have attempted connections with all six nodes in the local system. There is no response. We are not monitoring any traffic utilizing standard protocols over any channel."
Tali walked slowly and quietly towards engineering, listening to the conversation between Shepard and the geth. With all of the disasters earlier that day, she had forgotten all about Legion's predicament. How would it be if she came back and found the Migrant Fleet had suddenly vanished? Legion was a machine, but was self-aware and clearly troubled by the thought of being alone. Yet it kept on working without so much mentioning a problem that would have been debilitating for any other thinking, feeling being. Legion may have been incapable of emotion, but Tali was, and she couldn't imagine the terror she would feel if she were in its place.
Shepard watched him for a moment, trying to think of something to say. What could any of them do to help? Maybe Legion had an idea. "What's our next step? Tell me what you want to do. Should we head for the Perseus Veil, try to make contact there?"
Legion's vocoder sputtered, a sound that in better times would elicit a laugh followed by a response of "gesundheit" or "bless you" from its crew mates. "We are building consensus," Legion said. Its hands never stopped moving as he continued his repairs on the panel. "We will inform you when we have formulated a conclusion."
"Okay. You let me know if there's anything I can do for you," Shepard said, noticing Tali hovering near the mouth of the corridor. He motioned her into the room.
"Thank you, Shepard-Commander," Legion said.
"Shepard," Tali walked in, her voice calm and professional. "What can I do for you?"
Her suit was smeared with oily residues, her ordinarily beautiful purple and lavender swirl-patterned wrap stained dark with industrial solvents and lubricants. Shepard thought back to the jokes he and Kenneth had made when she had removed them to try and stay clean, and wondered if that was why she now wore the tattered rags. Hopefully, she had just been too busy to remember to take them off. The last thing she needed to be worrying about was her idiot captain's rotten sense of humor. "Just checking in," he said. "Want to make sure you've got everything you need."
"Um... We were short handed, of course," she stammered, "but... a lot of, uh, volunteers... came down to take over..."
Shepard watched as Tali began to tremble visibly. Of all the people on the ship, the attack took the heaviest toll on Tali. Thane's death was a loss felt by the entire squad, but the engineering department was decimated. Ken and Gabby were Tali's people. With one dead and the other in intensive care, the compartment which had always been Tali's sanctum would now be a constant reminder of this horrible day for as long as she was aboard the Normandy. He took a step toward her.
Then Tali closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Breaking down would not put the ship back together. There was still too much left to be done. And she knew that whatever she was going through, Shepard carried the weight of her problems as well as those for everyone else on the ship. She wouldn't let herself add to them. She looked up at him with tired eyes. "We're managing. As a matter of fact, I was going to let you have one or two people back, if they are needed elsewhere."
Shepard blinked in surprise, not just from the welcome news of spare resources, but from Tali's quick recovery from near-breakdown. He wasn't even sure he could maintain composure. "All right then," he said, "have whoever is lounging about down here report to Miranda for reassignment as soon as you're done with them. I'm sure we can find them something to do."
"Okay," Tali managed a weak smile, then turned back to her console. "See you, Shepard."
Almost as if on cue, Miranda's voice crackled over the intercom. "Commander Shepard, are you there?"
"Speak of the devil," Shepard said. He found himself rubbing his eyes and forehead once more. His XO would not be calling him to tell him everything was going well. "Go ahead, Miranda."
"We've got another problem," Miranda said. "Our support convoy has just been intercepted at the Sahrabarik Relay."
Shepard stared confusedly into the air. "What? By who?"
"The Council has blockades screening all traffic inbound to Omega. One of our ships was apparently identified as having Cerberus affiliation and has been boarded. The other three ships turned back through the relay."
Shepard leaned his head against the wall. "This isn't happening."
Miranda reluctantly continued. "Our signals group intercepted transmissions indicating the Council is now aware that the Normandy has returned from beyond Omega Four, and that our status critical. They are vectoring all available ships to this sector for a search." She paused. "Confirmed. SIGINT now receiving broadcasts in the clear. Orders for Normandy to surrender immediately. Alliance and independent ships are also breaking formation. They found us, Commander!"
"Tali," Shepard rushed back to stand next to the engineer, examining her status board. "FTL capability?"
The quarian's hands swept over her panel. The despair in her heart was no match for the urgency in her voice. "Limited, but we've got it. But where-?"
Joker's voice broke in over the channel. "Commander! New contact just jumped in right on top of us, starboard beam! Range, two thousand kilometers!
"Damn it!" Shepard slammed a fist against the wall, causing even Legion to turn to face him. "Battle stations!" Alarms once again blared throughout the Normandy. Deprived of sleep, nerves numb and still reeling from their losses, the crew streamed to their combat stations.
Tali stared at the Commander, eyes wide. "Shepard, we're not actually going to fight a Council ship are we?"
"Stand by," Joker reported. "They're coming to a stop. What the hell...? It's a-"
EDI interrupted him. "Sensor profile and transponder squawk indicate a volus transport, the MV Pollos Maskawa."
The battle stations alarm echoed around engineering as Legion, Tali and Shepard all processed the information. "Kill the alarm," Shepard said. "Joker, what are they doing?"
"Nothing," Joker said. "They're just... sitting there. Not registering any power up of weapons, no kinetic barriers..."
Garrus' voice broke in on the channel. "We have them locked up tight. I don't like this, Shepard. It could be a decoy. Standing by on main weapons."
"No other close contacts," Joker said.
"Hold fire," Shepard said. "Joker, plot an escape vector, pilot's discretion, but wait for my command."
Throughout the ship, everyone listened and waited. To the last of them, they dreaded the idea of going into combat once more, but still stood at the ready. The Normandy would not go down without a fight.
"A volus trader," Shepard said aloud. He couldn't tell if hopes of avoiding another battle or his curiosity were guiding him the most. "Maybe we have some friends who owe us a favor. EDI, hail them."
"Channel open, Shepard," EDI said.
"Pollos Maskawa," Shepard said. "This is Commander Shepard of the Normandy."
"Shepard-Commander," said a mechanical voice.
Shepard looked at the geth next to him. "What is it, Legion?"
Legion turned back to Shepard, its aperture flared wide. "We did not speak.""We are not Legion," said the synthesized voice over the comm. "We are geth."