Shepard flipped over in his bed. He'd seen enough to earn a lifetime of sleepless nights, but the events of the day still gnawed at him. Had Legion just obeyed the order to fall back at the control room, it might have been functional enough to escape. But then it would have not fallen behind during the sprint to the shuttle. Legion would have been right next to Zaeed when the praetorian slammed into the ground, and without its diversion none of them would have made it back.
If you hadn't insisted on searching the complex, Legion's rescue attempt wouldn't have been necessary, Shepard thought. What if he'd listened to Zaeed at the top of the crater, and they'd returned immediately to the Normandy? Business as usual. Dinner, with Legion sitting between Kasumi and Jacob, trying to follow the intricacies and subtleties of organic communication as the crew shared a meal. Joking and sniping, followed by another one of Zaeed's battle tales, waiting patiently for everyone to finish so he could call both Legion and Tali to his quarters so they could have the first dialogue between their kind in three centuries.
That was the real loss. The only link to the geth collective in the entire galaxy was gone. As soon as you found Legion was willing to talk to Tali, you should have aborted the mission. What would it have hurt? We would have found the collector outpost the next day. Who knows if the outcome would have been any different, but at least geth and quarian could have taken the first step toward peace. Now, unless the geth sent a replacement mobile platform to find them, the opportunity was gone. The Normandy would be going through the Omega Four relay in a few days. If they didn't make it back, there might be no one that would be willing to listen to the geth, let alone someone the geth would want to find to begin with. Legion's demise represented far more than an empty seat in the mess hall.
A gentle rapping sounded on the door leading to the elevator. Shepard checked the time. 0345. It must be something important, but why didn't they get EDI to wake you?
Dressed in boxer shorts and a white Saronis Applications t-shirt, he swung his legs out of bed and walked to the door. When it opened it, he found empty air. He leaned out and looked toward the elevator. Tali looked back at him, her finger still on the call button. "Oh, Shepard! I didn't ring the- I knocked because I didn't want to wake you. I didn't did I? This can wait."
"No," Shepard said. "It's all right. I wasn't asleep. What's up?"
Tali took a step towards him, her hands and arms coated with a dry white crust, her tool satchel still over her shoulder. Her entire body started to tremble. "I couldn't save him. I'm sorry."
Shepard stepped forward and held her by her shoulders. If Tali had been working continuously, she'd been on her feet at least twelve hours. "Look, we knew that from the start, right? I was just hoping you could retrieve data. If you couldn't bring him back then it couldn't be done. I appreciate that you tried. I really do. You have no idea what that means to me."
Tali bowed her head and let out a deep breath. "You don't understand. When I saw him destroyed on the shuttle, I was happy. I didn't even try at first to- I never had repair in mind. I just wanted to be sure he was gone."
Shepard took a step back from Tali, a scowl on his face.
"But you asked me to recover what I could. I promised," Tali raised her eyes and nodded. "So I did. His data logs were still intact."
"I thought geth wiped their memory upon destruction?"
"Legion's basic code issued a self destruct command," Tali wrapped her arms around herself. "But his collective programs countermanded the order. He wanted- he hoped we would save him, so he bypassed the command. But the memory where the programs reside didn't survive the attack. Only the log files. I'm sorry."
Shepard closed his eyes and leaned against the hatch's frame. "What was in them?"
"Everything." Tali took a deep breath. "I saw everything that happened down there. The collectors, the fight to get to the shuttle. Even what he was thinking when he..." Tali clenched her hands, trying not to lose control, "he went back for you. I've never seen anything like it."
Shepard pinched the bridge of his nose, wiping away the moisture that had collected there. He knew how Tali felt about showing emotion towards the geth, but he couldn't help himself. "Yeah, that was something, wasn't it? He even disobeyed an order to retreat so he could back me up."
"He sacrificed himself for you. Machines don't do that. They aren't supposed to!"
The tone of Tali's voice surprised Shepard, and realized for the first time that the quarian was referring to Legion as a he. "It complicates things when you find out your enemy isn't the devil, doesn't it?"
"You have no idea." Tali lifted her satchel from her side, and then let it drop. She looked back toward the elevator. "I should get back to the lab. Mordin will have a fit when he sees the mess."
Shepard noticed the hesitation. "You know, it's kinda cold out here. Why don't you come in? Let's talk a bit."
"Uh, I..." Tali stammered. "Really, I shouldn't keep you up."
"Forget about me. When was the last time you got any sleep?" Shepard asked. When Tali didn't answer, he smiled. "It's not like I'm going to sleep now. I'd appreciate the company."
Tali looked around nervously. "Okay, maybe just for a little bit."
She followed him through the hatch. The room was dark except for the soft light coming from the fish tanks on the left hand side of the wall. She followed him down the stairs to the sitting area beyond his office. As they passed through, Shepard touched a pad and raised the lights to their normal level. Tali stared at the battered N7 helmet sitting on the nearby desk, then at the dried geth conductive fluid covering her arms and chest. Shepard moved to the sofa next to the wall, but stopped when he saw her examining her hands.
Tali was suddenly aware of the Commander's scrutiny. "It seems like I'm always a mess when I come to see you."
"You're an engineer, I'd be disappointed if you weren't. You want to wash up?"
"No, I'm okay."
"Have a seat." Shepard watched Tali sit on the second couch beneath the display case holding his model ship collection. She looked around with her satchel clutched close to her chest. He sat forward on the edge of the cushion across from her. "You know, the geth don't want to be your enemy. They never did."
Tali looked at Shepard with a wounded expression even though he couldn't see it. It was a reflex when anybody outside of her species brought up the geth, because everyone thought they were an expert on their war. But Shepard was as experienced as she was in this frightening new territory. Shepard had single-handedly dispatched more geth than any company of Fleet Marines... and yet he was still willing to accept Legion into his crew. She thought he was crazy before, but there wasn't a single quarian she would want in his place right now. "I know. I ran through every conversation he's had with you since he came aboard. About the uprising, the heretics... Rannoch. All he wanted to do was talk to me, but he couldn't. He didn't want to make things worse, because of how I might react. And he was right. If he'd approached me by himself, I would have shot him."
Shepard sighed and nodded. "You almost did."
Tali laughed and leaned her head back against the sofa cushion, resting her burning eyes. The catharsis of confession, along with the stress of the day was catching up to her. "You must think I'm a monster."
Shepard's mouth tightened, but he shook his head. "No. After what you've seen? What you and your people have been through? You're entitled to bad blood. Comes with being organic, I think. We can't forgive like the geth can. It's not in our programming."
He stood up and shifted around to sit next to her with his left leg on the couch so he could face her. "But a monster wouldn't be sitting here talking to her captain about it. She'd be down in the lounge buying everybody shots."
"I wish I could have said it to him," Tali's shoulders heaved with a heavy sob. "Told him that I'm sorry. And thank him for saving you."
She looked into the eyes of the most important man in her life, here only because of the machine she wanted to see destroyed. She reached out with her right hand, and Shepard put his left hand gently on top, entwining his four fingers into her two. At the same time, Tali slid her right hand into her satchel, while turning Shepard's palm up with her other. She placed an object in his hand and folded his fingers over it as tears streamed down her face. She held onto his hands, feeling his warmth through her gloves, her eyes locked with his, before looking away and standing up to leave.
Shepard opened his palm to see a charred, blackened square of plastic. "What is it?"
"Legion's static memory core... His log files. Everything he saw since he left the Veil."
Shepard suddenly felt as though he were holding the most delicate, fragile sculpture in the galaxy. "You don't want to send this back to the fleet?"
The shakiness in Tali's voice changed to quiet determination. "No. I'll tell the Admiralty Board what they need to know. What I saw. If I give them that... they'll just fight over it. Goodnight, Commander."
Shepard watched her go, then looked back at the memory core and rose to his feet. "Tali, wait."
Tali stopped at the top step.
Shepard still held the core gingerly in his hand. "Can you set this up so we can access it here?"
"Sure," Tali reached into her satchel. "I've got everything I need in here. Why?"
Shepard beckoned and walked up the stairs to his personal workstation with Tali close behind. He touched a button to activate the screen. "EDI, a couple days ago you opened a link for Legion so he could communicate with his network. Do you still have the connection info?"
"Yes, Commander," said EDI's disembodied voice.
"Open the channel using the same transmission protocol."
"The channel is open, Commander."
Tali's heart pounded in her chest. "You're going to call the geth? What are you going to say to them?"
"I'm not going to say anything," Shepard said. "You are."
"What? I can't talk to them!"
"You know, Legion didn't seem to understand this either," Shepard said. "It has no meaning if I do it for you. You need to talk to each other."
"But I can't speak for the whole fleet!" Tali backed away. "I don't have the authority. I'm not even crew aboard the flotilla anymore. I-"
"You're still a creator. They want to communicate with you. And if you leave it up to the admirals, nothing will change. No one else is willing to take the first step."
"I can't do this," Tali wrung her hands in front of her. "I- I can't- I'm not a diplomat or a negotiator."
Shepard stepped toward her, pulling her hands apart, his face inches from her own. "You don't have to be," he pleaded. "Just let them know you're willing to talk. You want to thank Legion? I can't think of a better way."
Tali stood silently, mouth agape, shaking her head. "What do I say?"
Shepard held out his hand, still holding the memory core. "Give this back to them."
Tali took the memory core between her fingers and cradled it with her other palm and she nodded, finally understanding. She sat in Shepard's chair and fished around her satchel for the geth omnitool. She hunted through a case of adapters for a socket that would fit the geth module. The omnitool's interface opened before her, and with a few quick flicks of her fingers, she established the link.
"OK," she said. "It's online and patched into comms."
Shepard stooped over her shoulder, trying to make sense of the special contraption. "Transmit when you're ready."
Tali's finger hovered over the transmit key. "This is... Tali'Zorah vas Normandy. Creator-Tali'Zorah. I don't know if anyone is receiving, um... The mobile platform dispatched to find Commander Shepard is no longer operational. It and its constituent programs were destroyed while rescuing the Commander and his squad mates. They would not have survived without the mobile platform's assistance."
She paused to allow a response. Would they even acknowledge a quarian transmission, even if it came from the Normandy? "We- I... want to offer my thanks for saving their lives," she continued. "I have made the mobile platform's log files available for download on this channel. If there's anyone listening... thank you."
Tali released the transmit key and slumped forward on the desk, her head in her hands. Of everything she could have said, she spoke as if she were on a job interview. "Oh, that was awful."
Shepard huddled next to her and put his hand on her back. "You did great. You said everything you needed to. Not bad considering you had no time for rehearsals."
"Do you think they heard me?" Tali looked up at the Commander.
Shepard shrugged. "EDI, any response? Audio or otherwise?"
Tali turned back to the terminal. "How long do we wait?"
"Well I got a couple hours to kill before I have to get up," Shepard said with a grin. "You got anyplace to be?"
Tali laughed. All of the fear and sadness of the past day melted away, replaced with the anticipation of what was to come. Her mind raced with the conversations she'd seen between Legion and Shepard, with Legion's assertion the geth no longer occupied the homeworld and all the possibilities for the future. Did they mean it? After her brief glimpse into the mind of the geth, she couldn't help but be hopeful.
And to think, a few minutes before she was horrified at the prospect of communicating directly with the geth. Now she was terrified they might not respond. How long would they have to wait to find out?
The geth omnitool chimed softly.
"Geth handshake received," EDI announced. "Data transfer commencing. Estimated time to completion: thirty-six minutes, fifty seconds."
"Keelah..." Tali whispered and sat back in the chair.
Shepard patted Tali on her shoulder, a wide grin on his face. "How about that? Guess they're still awake too."
Tali clasped her hands in front of her chin she watched the progress bar march across the screen. She had an open channel to the entire geth collective, and they were listening. "What do I say next?"
"Start off with 'Good morning,'" Shepard suggested. "Work your way from there... and just don't stop."
(Alternate ending in next chapter.)