Fight for the Lost

By LuxDragon

Scifi / Action

Omega 4 Relay

Location: Omega Nebula / Sahrabarik / Normandy SR-2 / En Route to Omega-4 Relay

"Shepard, we are approximately 30 minutes away from the Omega-4 Relay," EDI announced. "The Illusive Man expressed his desire to speak with you before we make the jump."

Groaning in frustration, Shepard chose to ignore EDI's announcement to continue kissing the woman writhing beneath him. Miranda evidently agreed with his actions if her tightening grip on his head and neck were any indication. She let out a throaty moan when he rolled his hips and palmed her breasts.

However, Miranda eventually pulled back and hissed in pleasure. "Ooooh… wait… stop…"

Shepard thrusts became harder in response, causing her to arch her back and gasp.

She rode the euphoric high for a few moments longer before locking her legs around his waist to forcefully still his movements before they went too far. "Oh, God… I really don't want to be the voice of reason here…"

He relented and sighed before rolled onto his side to better look at the woman lying next to him. He brushed aside a lock of hair from her face before letting his hand trail down her creamy smooth skin before resting on her hip. He watched as her eyes slowly close at his touch and smiled when she sighed in response. Now, more than ever, he realized how beautiful she was. Her eyes opened slowly and she looked back at him with her striking azure eyes, complete with a satiated smile. Her face wore an expression of simple content, which for the moment was unburdened by thoughts of their mission, their allegiances, the Collectors, or the Reapers.

However, EDI's message brought reality back. She reluctantly pulled away from his arms and sat up slowly. He mentally cursed the sudden loss of warmth and privately decided to blame the Illusive Man for it.

The Collectors were enemies he could kill at least.

"We should get ready," Miranda said a hint of regret once she regained control of herself.

Calling on whatever reserves of will he had left, Shepard grudgingly nodded and said, "I know. Get Jacob up to firing control at the cockpit. I also need Samara running sensors and navigation at the bridge, and have Mordin in the Med Bay in case something happens to any of us during or after we get through the relay. At least we can spare EDI from those responsibilities so she can focus on the unknown variables."

"Understood."

He tossed the covers aside and groped around for any article of his clothes that were within reach of the bed. "EDI, tell the Illusive Man I'll be down soon. Just say we're finalizing our prep or something."

"Of course, Shepard."

Miranda laughed lightly at his obvious lie. Sliding out of bed, she was far less lazy than he was and gracefully got up. Padding around his cabin completely nude, she began collecting her uniform. Shepard found himself conflicted on whether he should covertly or openly stare at her apple derriere every time she bent over to pick up a piece of her clothing.

He settled for openly gawking when Miranda began dressing, though she took her time doing it. She slowly drew up her lacy undergarments at the foot of the bed, not once turning around, but he was sure that she was well aware of his eyes roaming every inch of her naked, smooth skin.

When she finally finished by zipping up her top, he finally crawled out of bed and decided to fetch a fresh set of clothes in his closet instead. He could still smell the scent of their passion lingering in his cabin.

Miranda smirked at his indiscreet arousal. "Are you going to be okay?"

"I'm fine, thanks," Shepard answered dryly. In short order, he was dressed and began gathering up the pieces to his Kestrel Armor. "A side effect from being in a relationship with you. I seem to get a great many in the course of a day whenever you're around. Believe me, if I ever needed relief every time this happened, we'd be having nonstop sex in every part of the ship."

Miranda tilted her head and pretended to look thoughtful. "Mmm… that's something to think about," she brazenly said. "Perhaps we should have a go in the engine room next?"

"Maintaining my concentration also seems to be a hazard with you," Shepard replied. His words belayed his actions when he didn't even look up at her as he sat back down on the bed and started pulling up his greaves. "You need to get going. Everyone's going to need us soon."

"Aye, aye, Captain," Miranda said, this time all business. "Before you contact the Illusive Man, may I use the Comm Room?"

"Reporting in?" Shepard asked curiously.

"No, I want to contact Oriana," she answered. "Just… just in case."

"You know, you don't have to ask for my permission," he replied. "You're the XO, so you could use whatever you need. Especially for that."

"I know," she said before getting close and planted a lingering kiss on his lips. It lacked the same passion an hour ago, but the feeling, the meaning behind it, was just as strong. She favored him with a mysterious smile before leaving him to his prep without further incident, inadvertently or otherwise.

Once again, Shepard didn't know whether he should be annoyed or amused with her games and pushed the thought aside while he busied himself with strapping on his chest plate.

In relatively short order, he was fully decked out in his armor. He took a moment to use his terminal and checked the status of a soon-to-be outgoing message. It was currently in escrow at some mailing server somewhere, requiring a password confirmation to delay or send it every week or so. The message had everything he knew about the Reapers, the Collectors, and any other relevant, important information he could think of in relation. He topped it off with the heading that if the recipients were reading it, then he was killed in action following his attempt to go through the Omega-4 Relay to stop the Collector threat.

It was ready to be sent to people he either trusted or would try to let everyone know. Anderson, Hackett, and a few other high ranking Alliance military personnel, as well as Emily Wong, who was most likely the only reporter he'd ever respected, maybe even admired or trusted.

Once his personal last minute business was complete, he descended to the Command Deck and checked the Normandy's status and distance from the relay.

Miranda walked into the CIC a couple of minutes later, looking all business again, and used the elevator without saying a word to him, even when he gave her an inquisitive look. Before the doors closed though, she shot him a wink, coupled with another smile. The indicator on the lift stopped at the Crew Deck, meaning she was presumably going to her office to retrieve her own armor.

Shepard smothered his own amused smile as he looped around through the Lab and he stepped into the scanner once a connection was established.

~o~O~o~

Location: Unknown

Whatever pleasant mood he was in was quickly replaced with a determined, hardened, and even bordering suspicious, mindset. It was always the same one he had always seemed to adopt when speaking directly to the enigmatic, and perhaps even charismatic, figure before him. He always had to mind his thoughts when dealing with someone that could speak as well as the Illusive Man.

His Cerberus benefactor was standing only a few feet away when he appeared in his office. The Illusive Man had his back was toward him as he appeared to be observing the dual-colored star that served to illuminate his dimly lit office. As expected, he was smoking an ever present cigarette. The chair that served as the only visible furniture in room was conspicuously absent.

Pausing only to take one deep drag, the Illusive Man turned around and exhaled slowly, letting the smoke waft and linger in-between them. "Shepard. I wish I had more information for you. I don't like you heading through that relay blind, but we don't have much choice."

"My team and I are ready. We'll deal with whatever we find," Shepard stated confidently. "They're some of the best I've worked with. We'll succeed."

The Illusive Man offered a slow nod. "I don't doubt that. I knew we brought you back for a reason. I've never seen a better leader."

Shepard even didn't bat an eye at the praise, true or not, though he couldn't help but wonder how sincere the Illusive Man was since he was supposed to be a leader in his own right. Idly, he wondered if news about his presence at Aite and Project Overlord had reached him yet.

"Despite the danger, it's great opportunity," the Illusive Man continued with a thin smile. "The first human to take a ship through… and survive."

"I'm sure you've heard about the sudden vacancies here," Shepard said, keeping his voice in check. "Obviously, I've got room to spare if you're that eager to see it."

"It's a tempting offer. But it's not my place," the Illusive Man replied smoothly. "That attack is a direct insult, but as devastating as the loss is, rest assured, the crew knew the risks when they signed up."

His words meant little to Shepard, but he chose not to make an issue out of it. At this point, some things were beyond his control. If there was any chance he could save the crew, he'd take it; any chance to survive the mission with everyone, all the better. To complete both objectives, however, would definitely call for a little luck.

"I just wanted you to know I appreciate the risk you're taking," the Illusive Man continued. "Regardless of your opinion of Cerberus. Of me. You are a valuable asset. To all of humanity."

Once again, Shepard didn't care for the compliment, though for decidedly different reasons.

And if Cerberus represents humanity?

"Be careful, Shepard," his 'benefactor' said with a surprising amount of sincerity. "You'll get the job done. No one else can."

His voice had a careful mixture of respect and admiration. To Shepard though, it was a sign of an artist who used charm as his weapon to get his subordinates to do as he wished. He could hear Miranda's voice cautiously remind him in his head, "The right tool for the right job."

Shepard gave him a silent curt nod and walked out.

~o~O~o~

Location: Omega Nebula / Sahrabarik / Omega-4 Relay / Normandy SR-2

"Everything ready?"

Shepard blinked away the spots that appeared in his vision as he made the instant transition from the darkened office of the Illusive Man to the familiar bright lights of the Normandy. He smiled at speaker.

"Yeah, just had to endure listening to the devil whispering in my ear to do his bidding," Shepard replied casually.

"And what did he say?" Miranda asked as they left the Briefing Room and into the CIC. Either she was masterfully ignoring his comment or humoring him; he couldn't tell.

"Oh, you know: 'You're a great leader, but remember that you answer to me since I brought you back to life and gave you a ship and crew; appreciate you risking your life so I don't have to; great opportunity to explore the unknown and how I can use what you find to my advantage'," Shepard muttered. "Same old, same old, though I might be paraphrasing him a bit. Or I might be paranoid. With him, I never know."

She arched an eyebrow at him. "Really? I hadn't noticed."

Noting that she didn't elaborate on which subject she replied to, either on his paranoia or his thoughts on the Illusive Man's possible agenda, Shepard had to admire her efficiency with how she could use words as her weapon as well.

"He also said, and I quote: 'You are a valuable asset. To all of humanity'," he said with a scoff.

At that last statement, she frowned.

"And Cerberus is supposed to represent humanity, right?" Shepard asked in an off-handed way.

"And the Illusive Man represents Cerberus, thus coming to the end of the thought process," Miranda said bitterly. "An asset, hmm?"

They entered the CIC and stopped at the ramp to the galaxy map. "He should've quit while he was still ahead. Being considered an 'asset' doesn't exactly sit very well with me. Didn't like it when the Alliance used me to be their face of humanity on the Spectres only for Udina to screw me over later, didn't like it when I saw those recruitment ads, and I definitely don't like it when the Illusive Man says it. After all, assets can be forgotten, 'retired', or considered expendable, no matter how valuable."

"Did he mention anything about David? Or Project Overlord?" she inquired.

Shepard shook his head. "You didn't mention it to him?"

"It wasn't a report I wanted to submit. Besides, it wasn't my cell anyway," she answered. "I suppose Dawn and Archer must be keeping a low profile until they reach more secure and safer regions of space before establishing contact."

Shepard shrugged. "I don't really care for Archer, but I hope Dawn is alright."

"I'm sure she and her crew are fine. It doesn't matter anymore. You have far more important things to worry about than the Illusive Man's opinions and any other events that are out of your hands, so it's best to put it out of your mind," Miranda resolutely advised. "We're about to make our approach to the Omega-4 Relay and we need you in top form."

Shepard took a deep breath and walked up to his post. Leaning on the railing overlooking the galaxy map, he reached out and touched the Omega Nebula, then Sahrabarik, until the map zoomed in on their current course. He impassively watched the miniature holographic representation of the Normandy fly ever closer to their destination.

He heard the elevator open behind him and gave a nod to Jacob and Samara when they came into his field of view. Like him and Miranda, they were outfitted in full combat gear, sans weapons. They quickly crossed through the CIC and into the bridge where they assumed their roles for what was to come. Miranda had taken it upon herself to work at her console nearby, one that was dedicated to damage control, such as a fires, hull breaches, engine failure, crew injuries/fatalities reports, and the like.

He hoped that nothing would happen as most captains would, but he knew that the harsh reality was that she was probably going to be as busy as everyone else at her new station. Probably more so.

"Everyone has reported their readiness, Shepard," Miranda reported. "Jack and Thane are in the hangar, doing a spot check to ensure everything is secured. Tali, Kasumi, and Legion are in engineering. Mordin is standing by at the Med Bay. Garrus is manning our main cannon, with Grunt assisting him with GARDIAN lasers and disruptor torpedoes. EDI has the rest well in hand."

"Approaching Omega-4 Relay," Joker reported.

"Let's make it happen," Shepard ordered. "Everyone stand by."

"The Omega-4 Relay is in range. Initiating transmission sequence."

"Reaper IFF activated. Signal acknowledged," EDI informed.

"We are connected. Calculating transit mass and destination," Joker said.

It was a report he gave countless times; standard procedure every time they did a mass relay jump. After a while, he sounded dreadfully bored and delivered the same lines in a dull monotone, but it was a necessity to inform the crew of the sudden acceleration/deceleration of mass relay travel. This time though, he sounded tense and serious, making his words sound more professional than Shepard had ever heard from the normally jovial helmsman.

"We are receiving new, specific directions," EDI announced.

"Bridge? Engineering here! The drive core is emitting a sudden burst of excess electrical charge!" Tali reported.

"Relay is hot. Acquiring approach vector."

"Drive core electrical charge at critical levels," EDI warned.

"Reroute it," Shepard ordered.

"Rerouting! Kasumi, that panel over there. Legion, take my station. I'm going to the primary drive core terminal."

Shepard watched with a feeling of nervous anticipation as the galaxy map changed to the image of the Omega-4 Relay when they finally got close enough for visual scanners to pick it up. Unlike the other mass relays that were scattered around the Milky Way, it was far larger than any of its counterparts. To add to its differences, instead of shining with a bright, warm, whitish-blue, the energy sphere produced by the Omega-4 Relay glowed an angry, foreboding, and unwelcoming reddish-orange.

"Energy buildup had been discharged safely," Legion reported.

"Energy discharge confirmed," Miranda responded. "All systems are still functioning within normal parameters."

"All stations secure for transit," Joker called out.

Shepard gripped the railing tightly.

"Board is green. Approach run has begun."

There was no turning back now.

"Hitting the Omega-4 Relay in 3… 2… 1…"

The Normandy lurched as it made its jump from one mass relay to the next. Instead of instantaneous travel though, there was actually a delay as they remained in the tunnel that always appeared to link the relays together. It felt like the g-forces were increasing the longer they stayed.

"Is this normal? !" Jacob shouted.

"According to the data received, this is normal, Jacob. We are almost there," EDI assured. "Brace of deceleration."

Shepard held on and bent his knees slightly now. He grunted and pushed hard against the railing as he jerked forward from the sudden loss of forces that were threatening to launch him on his ass moments ago. Thankfully, the systems that maintained inertia within the ship did their job to manage the sudden changes occurring and mitigated the worst of the forces acting on them.

"Oh, shit!" Joker shouted.

Looking up at the holographic images displayed, Shepard's eyes widened. "Evade!"

Joker was already a step ahead and pulled the Normandy into a steep climb.

"Rotate the ship 37 degrees!" Samara instructed. "There is a clear path out of this debris field!"

"I see it!" Joker replied as he frantically followed her directions and just managed to avoid a huge, jagged piece of metal that would've sheared off the starboard thrusters.

"CBT is functioning! So long as we avoid the larger pieces, the Normandy can handle the rest," Tali reported.

"Rotate 18 degrees now," Samara said. "Sensors indicate that we're almost out."

In truth, their little avoidance maneuver lasted about 20 seconds, but as Shepard let out the breath he was holding, it felt like 20 minutes.

"We're clear," Samara called out.

Looking at what the visual scanners were picking up, Shepard and Miranda stared at the countless vessels that the Normandy flew past.

"These must be all the ships that tried to make it through the Omega-4 Relay. Some look… ancient," Joker whispered.

"I know a few archeologists that would give a decade of their lives just to study any of these," Miranda said in awe.

"The Collectors?" Shepard inquired tensely.

"I have detected an energy signature near the edge of the accretion disk," EDI said.

"Details," Shepard demanded.

"We should be in visual range in a few moments."

Looking up at the display, Shepard watched as Joker rounded the Normandy past a particularly large corpse of a ship, its remains easily the size of a turian dreadnaught, until he spotted what they were after.

There was no mistaking it. The structure looked just like the Collector cruiser; a mesh of organic and metallic components, with an emphasis on length, but not radius, giving it a look of a cylinder, more so than the cruiser they were all familiar with. The real difference was that it was far larger than a mere starship, enormously so.

"It's not a world, it's a station; a base of operations," Miranda observed.

"Engage stealth systems. Take us in for a closer look, nice and easy," Shepard commanded.

"Acknowledged. Activating IES systems. Securing thrusters," EDI listed off. "We are running silent."

"Run some passive scans on that base once we're in range. Let's see what we're dealing with here," Shepard said.

"The galactic core is rendering our long range scanners useless. We'll need to get rather close to get any accurate details," Miranda pointed out.

"We were going to go in anyway," he replied.

"There's something following us," Samara suddenly said. "Several contacts aft of our position. They're small… possibly automated drones of some sort."

"Reconnaissance drones," Miranda hissed. "They must be all over the debris fields just in case a ship gets lucky crossing the Omega-4 Relay."

"Recon? Or attack drones?" Shepard asked.

A boom reverberated through the ship as the deck beneath them shuddered.

"I suppose that answers that," Miranda said as she typed away at her console. "Minor damage to our armor! They must be using laser-based weaponry to bypass our shields!"

"Secure from silent running! Joker, evasive maneuvers! Battle stations!" Shepard barked.

"Taking evasive maneuvers, aye!" Joker acknowledged.

"Securing from the silent running. Alert to all team members: Battle stations," EDI said calmly.

Joker put the Normandy through a series of spins and dives, followed by a several stomach churning twists and turns. Amazingly, though expected considering his extraordinary talents, he managed avoid a great deal of laser fire from the drones that relentlessly pursued them.

"More are coming!" Samara reported. "I count at least eight now!"

"Oh, now they're just pissing me off!" Joker snarled.

"Grunt, we need cover fire!" Shepard ordered.

"Got it!" Grunt replied enthusiastically. There was a pause before everyone heard him whisper to Garrus, "It was this button, right?"

"Locked on to the nearest targets of opportunity!" Jacob reported. "Wait, what did Grunt say…?"

"Yes! That one! Hit it!" Garrus shouted frantically.

"Right! Die!"

The Normandy's GARDIAN lasers lanced out, destroying two of the drones that floated ahead and were trying to crowd Joker's flight patterns.

However, the loss of two was replaced by four more as other drones became active and started firing indiscriminately at the Normandy.

The ship shuddered under another volley as more and more drones joined in the chase.

"They want another round? ! Come on, girl, let's give it to them!" Joker shouted out in challenge.

"They're not flying in range anymore," Grunt growled in annoyance. "Cowards!"

"Hang on! They'll be in range in a minute!" Joker assured edgily.

The Normandy lurched slightly from the next series of insane maneuvers Joker was attempting. However he was flying though, it proved to be more than a match for the drones as they tried to keep up and reacquire their target.

The frigate proved too nimble as it flew in and out and between red laser fire until it suddenly pulled up and over in a tight loop bringing a few drones in range of Grunt's blue lasers. Four drones were destroyed, but the others continued their pursuit with unrelenting tenacity.

"Shit!" Joker cursed.

One of the drones appeared on the starboard side near the bow. It fired off its laser weapon, but unfortunately for it, Joker was already pulling the Normandy in its direct path. At the last second, he pulled her into a roll, presenting the belly at the drone. It collided messily into the side of the hangar and bounced off.

"Damage sustained to the hangar bay," EDI reported.

"Damage? ! The fucking thing nearly plowed its way into the damn hangar!" Jack shouted.

"This isn't working!" Miranda shouted. "We won't be able to keep up this pace, not if we keep flying in circles like this in the open! There are too many after us and probably more hidden in this scrapyard! The armor plating won't hold!"

"Options? !" Shepard barked when another bout of laser fire scored a direct hit.

"She's right! We're sitting ducks out here. I have to try to lose them in the debris field!" Joker said.

"Our kinetic barriers are not designed to survive impact with debris that size," EDI cautioned.

"Tali?" Shepard asked expectantly.

"I-I don't know! Maybe! I'll try to keep the barriers up for as long as I can, but there's no guarantee we'll make it!" she cried out frantically.

"Maybe is better than no chance at all! Do it, Joker!"

"Hang on, everyone! We're going in!"

Shepard was soon treated to more images of the remains of the countless ships that were destroyed in their attempt to navigate the galactic core. The CBT shields were constantly flickering around the Normandy as smaller debris collided, and then were cast aside as Joker tried to avoid the larger pieces that would either cause the frigate to crumple like tissue paper or shred her to ribbons.

"Come on, find me some room!" Joker called out.

"There are echoes at reference point 280, indicating a large tunnel most likely. I believe we can fly there. The drones appear to have difficulty following our route. Several explosions detected, but the shockwaves are throwing everything around us into disarray. Hurry," Samara instructed.

A loud screeching filled the frigate when one particularly large piece of metal suddenly floated up and collided with the ship, far too large for the CBT to push away.

"Shit!" Joker gasped out. "Move it, you son-a-of-bitch! Get out of the goddamn way!"

"The barriers are at 40% and dropping fast!" Kasumi reported. "A quarter of our CBT emitters have overloaded and reverted to standard kinetic barrier configurations!"

"Legion, we need to reroute non-critical power!" Tali ordered. "Get to Ken's power station!"

"Acknowledged. Rerouting power."

"Come on!" Jacob shouted. "Get us through this!"

"Damn it! Tali, you gotta give us everything you've got or this is gonna hurt!" Joker said through gritted teeth.

"Samara, I need to know if we got rid of these things!" Shepard called out.

Everything around them was shaking violently. The pseudo-tunnel of debris Samara had led them into seemed to be bearing down on them from all sides now. Joker turned and rotated the Normandy in every direction he could, but it was all he could do to avoid direct collisions with any of the larger pieces. Smaller ones floated out and continuously impacted against their barriers as the Normandy pushed and clawed her way out to safety.

"There is too much debris to tell, but there are no more explosions detected. I believe we have lost our pursuers," Samara finally said.

"I see a way out!" Joker said.

"Barriers at 30% and holding steady!" Tali reported. "Get us out of here before that changes! We've done all we can and Tantalus Core can't take much more of this!"

"Ack! That terminal is on fire!" Kasumi shouted.

"The extinguisher is behind you! Put it out! Put it out!"

"Do it, Joker!" Shepard barked.

"On it! Almost there!" Joker acknowledged. He brushed past one last cylindrical piece of trash and pulled the Normandy up and away.

Too close…

"We've cleared the debris field," Samara said.

"Damage report?" Shepard asked.

Miranda sighed in relief. "No significant damage detected or any casualties reported. Everyone below deck has just checked in. Legion reports that systems are still functional despite a few setbacks. Somehow, we got through that mess alive and in one piece. Kinetic shields are at 28% and holding. Armor is still intact for the most part, but I guarantee we'll need a new coat of paint."

"We're almost to the Collector base," Jacob reported. "Hopefully, we'll avoid anymore attent—ah, crap…"

Before Shepard could ask, Samara's composed voice smoothly broke in.

"Ship detected. LADAR indicates that it is a cruiser," she reported. "It is leaving the base and adopting an attack posture."

"Looks like they're sending an old friend to greet us," Joker muttered.

"Energy buildup detected," she warned. "They're firing their main weapon."

"Not this time, you bastards," he replied before pulling the Normandy low and to the left to avoid the Collector's golden laser beam.

"Jacob, firing solution," Shepard ordered.

"Target locked on," Jacob said.

"Garrus, time to show them our new teeth. Fire the main gun!"

"Firing!" Garrus replied.

Shepard watched with bated breath as their new Thanix Cannon fired a thick blue projectile out from the dual barrels beneath the Normandy's nose. In less than a second it made contact with the Collector cruiser and heavily impacted just above their main cannon. Explosions erupted from the point of contact.

"How do you like that you sons-of-bitches? !" Joker crowed.

"Direct hit, right across the bow! Nice shot, cuttlebone!" Jacob cheered.

"Main gun is cycling! 15 seconds!" Garrus reported.

"Grunt, follow up with a salvo of torpedoes! Garrus, as soon as Thanix Cannon is up, fire at will! Joker, get in close and we'll finish them off!" Shepard commanded. "Bring us about to avoid their counterattack! I want a full broadside!"

"Everybody hold on – gonna be a wild ride!" Joker said as he brought the Normandy in for a more aggressive attack position. The cruiser fired its main weapon again, while Grunt countered with disruptor torpedoes. The agile frigate danced around the danger and flew in a tight circle to bring her own main gun to bear. Within moments, the starboard side of the enemy ship was beautifully lined up.

The same ship that killed 20 good men and women. The same ship destroyed the SSV Normandy SR-1.

The very same ship that killed him.

"Fire everything!" Shepard roared.

Grunt let loose a full complement of disruptor torpedoes to start off the next round of attacks. All four ripped into the hull of the cruiser, creating a weakness to exploit.

"Firing main gun!" Garrus informed.

"Give'em hell, girl!" Joker cheered.

This time, the Thanix Cannon punched right through the width of the cruiser at a steep angle. The explosions became even more violent than before.

"Enemy ship is toast! There's no way they can recover from that!" Jacob shouted.

"I am detecting massive fluctuations in the enemy ship's mass effect core. I believe their vessel is self-destructing," EDI said suddenly.

"Evade!" Shepard ordered.

Joker pulled the Normandy away as quickly as he could, but a sudden eruption from the dying ship created a shockwave that battered the already damaged frigate.

"Bosh'tet! Mass effect field generators are offline!" Tali reported.

"Tali, EDI, give us something!" Shepard said as he held onto the railing as everything around them shook and rocked in every direction.

"Nothing is responding! There's nothing we can do!" she cried out.

"All hands, brace for impact!" Shepard shouted. He watched helplessly as they fell at a dead drop towards the Collector base. A thick metal column was right in their flight path.

Astonishingly, the Normandy banked slightly to the right, causing it to only clip the right vector thrusters into column. The ship violently spun to the side and Shepard found himself airborne for just a moment before landing heavily on his back. He rolled a couple of times before colliding into another hard surface.

Shepard had only a moment to grit his teeth before he tumbled yet again in some random direction when the frigate finally crashed onto the surface of the base. Even in constant motion, he was forced to cover his ears in a futile attempt to block out the high-pitched screeching that seemed to come from everywhere: the deck, the struts, the bulkheads, the lights, even the screws appeared to be emitting an ear-splitting metallic scream.

After what seemed like an eternity, the sounds finally faded and the air around him stilled. He forced himself to unclench his teeth following the Normandy's 'landing' and uncovered his ears, but a persistent ringing was still present, which degenerated into a raging headache. It was compounded by the sounds of klaxons and flashing emergency red lights. He took a deep breath and shook his head to try to clear his senses before taking stock of the situation.

Climbing slowly to his feet, he grabbed onto the nearest surface he could reach and pulled himself up. Once vertical, he saw that he had been thrown right into the central command post; he was standing right where the galaxy map was usually displayed.

Gingerly climbing over the ring of consoles and terminals, he spotted Miranda slowly getting to her feet as well, groaning as she did so.

"You okay?" Shepard asked, concern etched in his features. He hurried over and held out a hand.

"I think so," Miranda answered. She took his hand and managed to stand without complications. She smiled and joked, "Any landing you can walk away from, right?"

"Yeah, I was thinking the same thing," Shepard agreed with a chuckle. "Joker? Jacob? Samara? EDI?" he called out.

"I am all right," Samara assured. She was standing at the entrance to the bridge, no worse for wear.

"Jacob here. I'm still breathing. Joker is too from the way he's groaning."

"Ah, shit… I think I broke a rib. Like, all of them," Joker grunted out.

"I am still functional," EDI assured.

"Damage report," Shepard rasped out as a bout of pain flared up. He took a deep breath and felt the hurt fade as quickly as it came.

Miranda staggered to her station and tapped a few buttons to shut off the blaring alarms. "Looks like several core systems overloaded during the crash," she answered after looking through the readouts. "No casualties reported, but without a crew to report in… EDI? Can you check?"

"Standby," EDI said.

"Can the systems be fixed?" Shepard asked.

"Restoring operation is possible, but will take time," EDI answered. "I have contacted the rest of the squad. No major injuries to note."

"Anyone not dead, report in," Shepard ordered.

"Thane here. Jack and I are alright."

"Barely," Jack groaned. "That landing sucked ass."

"Garrus here," the turian groaned out though he sounded strangely muffled. "Grunt and I are okay. At least, he's okay. I would be too if he would please… Get. Off! You're too damn heavy! I'm not your cushion here!"

"I'm moving! I'm moving!"

"Kasumi here. Tali banged her head a bit, but her helmet protected her fine. She's running some quick diagnostics on our systems. Legion and I are fine too."

"Mordin here. Appears that I won't have any patients. Good to hear, good to hear."

Shepard sighed in relief.

"Shepard? Tali here. I'm having trouble getting some of the primary systems to start up and the backups are a hit-or-miss right now. We might be in a bit of trouble."

"We all knew this was likely a one-way trip," Miranda said in resignation.

"It's only a one-way if we die and we're not there yet. Not even close," Shepard stated. "EDI, how long until the Collectors find this landing zone?"

"You mean crash zone," Jacob grumbled as he slowly walked into the CIC to join everyone.

"I do not detect an internal security network. It is possible the Collectors did not expect anyone to reach the base," EDI said.

"If we're lucky, their external sensors were hit like we were. They might not know we're alive," Joker added optimistically. "At the very least, that cruiser isn't reporting back to them."

"What the hell happened with that cruiser, anyway?" Jacob asked.

"Security precaution of some sort, most likely. In the event that their ship was disabled in any way, it would self-destruct to prevent their technology from falling into enemy hands," Miranda theorized. "After all, they're agents of the Reapers. Their databases would be a boon to anyone that could salvage them and a significant disadvantage to the Reapers."

"Doesn't matter. It's gone, we're not," Shepard resolutely said. "Miranda, gather everyone and have them report to the Conference Room. Anyone that's injured and wants to go the Med Bay can go before then."

"Understood," Miranda said with a nod. She left, followed by Jacob and Samara.

"Joker, start running the diagnostics and find out what it would take to coax the Normandy to fly again. Ask nicely; she's hurt, but not down."

"Don't worry. This girl has a heart and a soul. She'll get us out of here," Joker promised.

Shepard walked up to his command post again. "EDI, I need deep penetrating scans of this base. As much information as you can gather. We need a way in. And if it's possible, see if you can hack and mine their databanks. Any information you can get could be of vital importance."

"Beginning scans," EDI acknowledged. "Attempting to gain remote access to their main grid."

The central display lit up with a rough outline of the exterior of the Collector base. Shepard keenly watched as details flooded in, making the holographic representation become more and defined. He started at their current position and worked his way out from there, making mental notes of any points of interest that caught his eye.

Slowly, his mind began to formulate the route he and his team would need to take to complete all of their objectives.

And hopefully get everyone out alive.

If he could.

~o~O~o~

Location: Galactic Core / Collector Base / Normandy SR-2

Shepard entered the Briefing Room with a steady, purposeful stride. He made eye contact with everyone on his team upon entry. Miranda had reported to him a few minutes ago that while some of the squad received their fair share of bumps and bruises, each one was still combat ready as they assured earlier.

There were no words to express his relief upon hearing that.

Stopping at the head of the table, he took a deep breath and addressed the assembled squad. "This isn't how we planned this mission, but like it or not, this is where we're at. We can't worry about whether the Normandy can get us home; that's Joker and EDI's job. We came to stop the Collectors, and that means coming up with a plan to take out this station. EDI, bring up the scans and tell them what we came up with."

A rough wire diagram of the base appeared at the center of the table.

"You should be able to overload their critical systems if you get to the main control center here," EDI instructed and highlighting the Normandy's crash site along with the location of the objective. Their path would take them almost across the diameter of the station.

Jacob leaned forward on the table and narrowed his eyes. "Damn. That means going through the heart of the station. Right past this massive energy signature."

"As far as we've been able to determine, that's the central chamber. Thermal scans indicate a large number of heat signatures in that region. If our crew or any of the colonists are still alive, the Collectors are probably holding them in there," Shepard said.

"Looks like there are two main routes," Jacob observed with a critical eye. He used his omni-tool to point out the paths that would lead to the chamber. "Might be a good idea to split up and keep the Collectors off balance, then regroup in the central chamber."

Miranda shook her head. "No good. Both routes are blocked. That dark area in this scan means doors and considering the size, blast doors most likely. We'd need to carry a substantial amount of explosives to get though."

"Bypass them?" Jacob suggested.

"With the Collectors coming down on us in force? Whoever's working those locks will have their bare ass hanging out, waiting to get shot," Garrus warned. "We'd be forced to protect whoever is doing the bypass, which might mean giving up defensive positions in the meantime."

"This place isn't a fortress; they never expected anyone to make through the relay alive," Shepard reminded. He highlighted a long white line on the diagram that ran in-between the routes they've been looking at. "See this main vent? It goes right behind the doors. We'll send a team down each path to keep the Collectors busy. If it works, then whoever we send should be able to circumvent the doors, use a shaped charge to blast their way out of the vent, and open the doors without trouble from any hostiles on the other side."

"Practically a suicide mission if there are Collectors on the other side of those doors, though. One versus who-knows-how-many," Jacob pointed out grimly. "I volunteer."

"The thought is appreciated Jacob, but there's more to the task than just the possibility of fighting Collectors behind those doors. The other two teams will be besieged as we approach. We'll need someone to open those doors as quickly as possible," Miranda said before turning to Shepard. "We need to send a tech expert."

"Our best tech experts are… Tali, Kasumi, and Legion," Shepard identified in turn.

Tali and Kasumi stood straighter when he picked them out of the lineup. Legion didn't react at all, not that anyone expected it to.

"EDI, what's the temperature inside that vent?" Shepard asked.

"Latent heat signatures indicate that the temperatures inside the vent can reach excesses of 140 degrees Celsius. Currently, the temperature is holding steady at 110 degrees," EDI stated.

"Even in a hardsuit, that's going to be uncomfortable," Miranda cautioned. "But if the temperatures actually reach 140, whoever you send in there won't survive if they fail to make it to the end. There's definitely a time limit here."

"Fine. Legion, I'm sending you in. A synthetic body can take much more punishment than an organic one, so you're the best chance we have of getting in with the fewest complications," Shepard decided.

"Acknowledged," Legion said. "However, we should inform you that temperatures of that magnitude will result in rapid systems failure. This platform would be able to endure for approximately 27 seconds before shutting down."

"Then we're all going to have to move quickly," Shepard said.

"It's probably for the best, anyway," Kasumi said with a shrug. "Legion has that flashlight head, so it can see in the dark. Helpful when you're crawling through an enclosed space like that."

"The rest of us will break into two teams and fight down each passage. Hopefully, that should draw the Collectors' attention away from what you're doing. If not, I'm hoping you're also tough enough to take out any sentries or whatever threats there are by yourself," Shepard said, overlooking Kasumi's joke. "I'll lead the first fire team. Miranda, you take the second."

"I won't let you down," Miranda promised.

Shepard nodded and looked at his teammates in turn before pointing at his choices. "I'll take Grunt, Mordin, Kasumi, and—"

"—Samara," Miranda interrupted before he could pick Jack. "I'll take the rest."

Shepard found himself surprised and glanced at Jack. In past, when he needed to split up the teams, he always had to take care to separate both women to avoid any problems. "Any objections?" he asked to the group at large, though his gaze remained on the ex-con.

Jack crossed her arms and snorted. "Whatever. I guess someone needs to keep the cheerleader's ass alive," she said, though oddly enough, her voice lacked her usual malice.

"And I appreciate that," Miranda said civilly, but not coldly.

Now Shepard was sure he was missing something, but if neither women had any complaints, he wasn't about to make trouble himself. "If you're sure…"

"We'll be fine," Miranda said.

"She managed to survive her stint on Aite along with the others. I figure she has to be doing something right," Jack replied nonchalantly.

"Fine," Shepard agreed shortly. He turned to the other two tech specialists. "Kasumi, Tali."

Both women perked up when their names were called.

"There's a specific reason why you two are on separate teams here. Once Legion opens a door, whichever one it chooses, we need to have that door shut quickly to block off the Collectors that's going to be attacking that fire team. Depending on what door it opens, one team will need to hold their position until it closes. While Legion is busy, one of you will need to open the other door for the other fire team get in and close it to cut off any enemy reinforcements as well, got it?"

"I understand." – "Got it, Shep."

"Any questions?" Shepard asked to everyone as a whole.

"I know this will sound callous, but what do we do with the crew and any other colonists we find once we get there?" Miranda asked.

"What do you mean, 'what do we do'?" Jacob questioned. "We save them."

"And then what? We walk them back? Through whatever forces the Collectors' mounts against us? How easy do think this will be? To get there will be difficult enough, but to go back after?" Miranda countered. "What if they begin reinforcing their positions in the meantime? Even if they're still alive, we can't afford to go back."

"We can't abandon them!" Jacob said heatedly.

"I'm not saying we should abandon them," she argued. "I'm saying we need a plan. We'd be hard pressed to complete the mission as is, which I should remind you, is the priority here. The colonists, even the crew, are secondary. If we fail, a rescue would be a pipe dream anyway. This isn't some sort of stroll where we can freely roam their base without being harassed."

"I know that, but—" he tried to say.

"Also, we should keep in mind that some of the crewmen might be unable to fight, in addition to any untrained civilians we find as well. We can't hold their hands through this," she added. "All of that is compounded by any injuries or whatever else the Collectors may have inflicted on them prior to our arrival."

"I agree with her," Garrus said quietly. "It'd be nice if we can rescue them, but with the Normandy out of commission for the time being, and the Collectors on our heels every step of the way, how can we afford to escort them back? We can't even get the shuttle, or the tanks out of the hangar with the way the Normandy's landed."

"We're here to fight the Collectors. If this was a suicide mission, then your clan should know that death was certain anyway," Grunt rumbled. "How does it matter if they die now or later?"

Shepard shook his head. "And how would you like to die, Grunt? In battle or in a cage? No one gets left behind, not if we can save them somehow."

Grunt fell silent and looked thoughtful at his words.

Shepard clenched his jaw and considered the problem. Despite his desire to help out anyone they might come across, he knew the logistics would make it impossible. By the time they get there, the Collectors would be swarming all over them. There was no way to escort the noncombatants all the way back to the Normandy and then retake the ground they'd given away for a rescue.

"I will escort them."

Shepard looked away from the map and at Mordin. "What?"

"Am aware that out of entire squad, I possess the least in combat ability. Specialty in lies in science, medicine," Mordin said. He held up his hand to forestall any statements to the contrary. "Dr. Chakwas may be injured. Unable to render medical assistance. Will need to take over. Once crew and colonists are liberated, I will personally escort them back to the Normandy and conduct any medical aid."

"By yourself?" Kasumi asked.

He shrugged. "No choice. Mission takes priority. Difficult problems require creative solutions. Or sacrifice if necessary."

Shepard nodded to him in gratitude. "Let's hope it's the not the latter. Okay, Mordin. Everyone will bring along every weapon we have in the Armory. Once we reach them, we'll pass off the equipment to anyone that's still able to fight and you'll lead everyone back. I'm counting on you."

"Will not let you down," Mordin said. "Should gather surplus of medical supplies too. Stims and such to ensure everyone can maintain fastest speed to avoid or outrun conflict."

"What happens after we get to wherever we're going?" Jack asked.

Shepard shook his head. "No idea. EDI hasn't finished her scans yet and we can't wait. We'll get more info as it comes."

A few of team members had looks of unease, but everyone steeled their resolve and silently conveyed to him that they were ready for whatever they might encounter.

Once again, Shepard looked each of them in the eye. "I don't know what we're going to find in there, but I've never lied to any of you about this mission. We're good, we've damn good, but the odds are still stacked against us. Once we're in, they're going to throw everything they have at us. If we're weak, if we're slow, if we hesitate, we'll fail. And that's something we won't let happen.

"We don't know how many the Collectors have taken – thousands, hundreds of thousands. They attacked our ship, took our crew, our friends… But it doesn't matter now. What matters is this: Not. One. More. We're going to finish it, because no one else can. Then, we're going to make them regret it. We're here to end this. They're going to know exactly what we're made of. And by the time we're done, that's the last thought they'll ever have."

He took a deep breath and stood tall. "They started a war they never stood a chance of winning. No more running. No more waiting.

"It's time to take the fight to them."

~o~O~o~

Author's Notes:

Line taken from the novel, the Dig.

Thanks to reviewer Reikson for reminding me: another line taken from Star Trek.

I know I didn't do the Oculus fight, but I really couldn't put it in the story that would make sense. I mean, really, if any of those things got inside, they should either:

A) Fire off their lasers (which cuts through a ship's military grade armored hull) and pretty much destroy everything it pointed at, including little tiny organics.

B) Self-destruct. From the inside, that's a game over.

Well, at least I managed to get this up by Christmas. Not sure I'll make New Year, but I'll try.

In the meantime, review this chapter and then move on to the next, k? (When it's up.)

Big thanks to reviewer Vickmackey007 for his constant and steady stream of reviews of all my past chapters. It certainly gave me the kick I needed to finish this one.

Merry Christmas!

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