In 2288, Commander Virginia Shepard's Wedge Defense Force command, the starship Normandy (SR-1), was ambushed and destroyed by a GENOM Corporation Star Destroyer task force as part of Operation Götterdämmerung, the company's master plan to crush the WDF. Thanks to Shepard's own heroic last stand, most of her crew escaped with their lives... but the commander herself was not so lucky.
Now, more than a year later, the survivors of the WDF are scattered fugitives, hunted relentlessly throughout the galaxy by GENOM and an army of bounty hunters and opportunists. In this perilous time, the core of the Normandy's crew reconvenes in the heart of enemy territory. Their mission:
I have a message from another time...
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
© 2012 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Table of Contents
Officer Garrus Vakarian, formerly of the Turian Hierarchy Security Force, was assigned to the Wedge Defense Force in 2280 as part of the Hierarchy's officer exchange program. He was originally slated to remain aboard the Normandy for just one mission, but that mission turned out to be a doozy, and he found something in WDF service that he'd been missing as a cop on Palaven - something that compelled him to stay on until the ship's destruction eight years later. Less by-the- book than your average turian officer, Garrus still has a policeman's mentality, rather than a soldier's, in many ways.
Gunnery Sergeant Ashley Williams, Royal Salusian Marine Corps, was proud to be part of the RSMC's long tradition of service aboard WDF vessels, in part because it was her only opportunity for a deep space posting. Her family had been out of favor with certain elements within the Ministry for War since before Earth Contact, when the family name was still Vl'%hmz, owing to an incident that befell her great- grandfather during the 1866-1873 war with the Turian Hierarchy. She carried that stigma, and a hereditary grudge against turians, until the fires of battle aboard the Normandy - and alongside Garrus - burned both of them out of her.
Seconded to the WDF from the United Earth Defense Forces, Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko was part of the first Earther generation to be born with a statistically significant psionic minority. Early human psions (sometimes called by the now-deprecated term "biotics") had to be cybernetically augmented in order for their powers to manifest to useful levels, but the augmentations had severe side effects, causing the project to be abandoned after only a few years. Alenko was one of the lucky survivors to emerge with useful powers and no significant handicap (though he would be plagued by occasional severe headaches for years). A powerful telekinetic, he also has considerable technical training - the combination which earned him his nickname aboard the Normandy.
When he joined the crew of the Normandy as what was euphemistically called a "contractor", Urdnot Wrex's nickname was ironic; like almost all krogan encountered off their home planet of Tuchanka, he was a mercenary, pure and simple. The messy political situation on the homeworld and the ongoing decline of his species had left him bitter and cynical even by krogan standards. He fought because it was the only thing he knew how to do. As part of the Normandy 's increasingly eclectic crew, he rediscovered the joy of battle and learned for the first time what it was to fight for a cause, not just a paycheck.
Kevirin'Zorah nar Irvola became part of the Normandy crew more or less by accident. The young quarian, out traveling the galaxy on his people's traditional pilgrimage, was swept up in the events of the 2280 geth attack on Salusia simply because he happened to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right skills to have picked up a key piece of evidence as to what was going on. A talented software engineer and computer technician even by the standards of his unusually technical culture, Kevirin'Zorah could have returned to the Migrant Fleet in triumph after the geth were routed at Salu II - but he was having far too much fun to leave the Normandy.
Nobody really understood what Dr. Liara T'soni was doing on the Normandy at first, least of all Dr. Liara T'soni. An asari archaeologist barely out of her first century, she, like Kevirin, was pulled into the vortex of the Incursion of 2280 more or less by accident. Lacking any sort of military or spacer training, she first came aboard as a guest in what amounted to protective custody, but her determination to pull her own weight soon saw her transforming herself from a sort of unofficial mascot into one of the mainstays of the crew. Clever, resourceful, and a lot tougher than she looks, she is capable of almost Shepardian flashes of ruthlessness - though, as with her role model, she's usually just acting.
Lieutenant Jeff "Joker" Moreau was the WDF brass's first and only choice to helm a ship as fast and twitchy as the SR1-class prototype, and not because he happens to be a very distant cousin of Gryphon's. Wisecracking, cynical, and carrying around a huge chip on his shoulder because of his lifelong battle with Vrolik's Syndrome, he's also in a class all his own as a pilot. He may not have lettered in track or wrestling at the Academy, but as long as he has a good enough chair to sit in and a powerful enough inertial damper on board, he can make a ship, or an aircraft, or a speeder, or a car - pretty much any vehicle - do things very few other people can even imagine. He's surprisingly good for morale, too. Just don't get him started about the whole "Joker" thing.
A career officer in the once-secret navy of GENOM Corporation's Military Arm, Captain Lorth Needa's shot at the big time came when he was given a task force and assigned to command one of the key missions of Operation Götterdämmerung: the assassination of Virginia Shepard. Having elegantly (by GENOM standards) accomplished this mission through the complete obliteration of the Normandy, he then lost a few points with the front office by blowing the follow-up job (the capture of Cybertron), but now he's been handed another chance to make good by doing bad. Now the pressure is on for this cold, ruthless, and relentless hunter. He knows Largo, ever mercurial, is unlikely to accept his apology a second time...
Five beings sat around a table in a darkened room high in the Imperial Halstead's tower, their faces lit only by the datascreens set into the table in front of each seat. Beyond the picture window that dominated most of the back wall, the sprawling grid of this piece of Halstead's pole-to-pole worldcity stretched off to the horizon, gleaming in gold and red, but its nightglow was too feeble to penetrate far into the room. Above, like a strange reflection of the citygrid, the colossal latticework of Halstead's orbital shipyard complex twinkled with its own lights, so vast it filled the sky at this equatorial latitude.
"Are we sure this is the right guy?" asked the tall, unusually slender figure at the far end in a low, faintly metallic voice.
One of the others, as squat and broad as the first speaker was tall and thin, snorted. "Does it matter?" he replied, his tone deep and gravelly. "They're all scum. Whichever one we take out, we're doin' the galaxy a favor."
"It matters to me," the first replied. He tapped fitfully at the table with the talons of his two left fingers. "I didn't come all this way through Corporate Sector security just to commit random mayhem. "
"Bah," said the second dismissively.
"An admirable sentiment, if perhaps impractical," said a third man's voice, this one filtered through the audio processor of a quarian environmental helmet, from the other end of the table. He added with dry humor, "I don't have to ask you where you got it. Regardless, you needn't worry. I verified this information myself. We are on the trail of the right man." The quarian manipulated a holographic omni-tool on his left forearm, causing the image of a hatchet-faced, middle-aged human to appear above the table's central projector. "GENOM's own records confirm that, on September 11, 2288, Captain Lorth Needa was in command of the Star Destroyer Avenger... a posting in which he remains today."
The first man leaned forward, revealing the deepset eyes and masklike face of a turian. "What do we know about him?"
"He's a career line officer," the quarian replied. "Has been with the company his entire adult life. He has several commendations and one black mark on his record."
"Not officially, but it shows in the pattern of the data. Immediately after it destroyed the Normandy, Needa's squadron was tasked with capturing any Wedge Defense Force fugitive who sought refuge on Cybertron. When Optimus Prime refused to turn them over, Needa was prepared to invade the planet, but was driven off by the arrival of a far superior Zentraedi battle fleet. It was the right move. Even Largo had to admit not only that Needa's force would almost certainly have lost that fight, but also that making the attempt would have sparked an open war between the company and the Zentraedi Alliance. Needa wasn't reprimanded for fleeing... but his squadron hasn't received a meaningful assignment in over a year. They've been here, on Corporate Sector patrol, since retreating from Cybertron, and Needa, while still ostensibly in command, has spent most of that time in an office planetside."
"Yeah, that reads like he's on somebody's shit list, all right," said a woman who hadn't spoken before.
"That may have changed today, however," the quarian went on. " Avenger received encrypted flag orders this morning. The squadron has been preparing to depart since that time. I don't know what was in those orders... " He hesitated fractionally, and a note of faint smugness crept into his filtered voice as he added, "... but I will. In any event, I'm delaying them as best I can by interfering with their automated maintenance and resupply orders, but their system operators will work around me soon enough. If we are going to strike, it has to be now, before Captain Needa returns to his ship and leaves the sector."
"Before we do that," said the woman, "we need to decide exactly what our intentions are. This deep in the Corporate Sector, we all need to be on the same page before we commit or there's liable to be trouble when the time comes to get out."
"That's easy," said the second speaker in his voice like crushed rocks. He leaned forward over his datascreen, lighting up his broad, brutally scarred face with its two wide-set, bright red eyes under a beetling brow of bony red plates. He smiled, baring rows of flat, uneven teeth, which didn't make him any better-looking, and went on, "We get this Needa guy into a corner and I rip his guts out. And then we all go home."
"Is that really necessary?" asked a fourth man. "I mean... don't shoot the messenger, here, but don't you guys think this has gone a little too far? Whoever this guy is, he's just a soldier like us. He was doing his job. Killing him in combat would be one thing, but you're talking about assassination. Maybe what we should do is concentrate on his bosses - see if we can find some evidence that will convince - "
The sixth member of the group, a slim woman who had stood silently by the window gazing out at the city during the discussion, suddenly spoke, her quiet voice cutting off the man's objections with a single cold syllable:
Everyone at the table turned to look at her. She ignored them for a moment, still looking out at the street grid. Then she turned, her eyes glinting in the reflection of the dim datascreen lights, and said in a voice filled with scorn, "This man Needa is not a soldier. He led a force of two dozen corporate starships that ambushed and destroyed a vessel one-tenth the size of their smallest member, without transmitting any challenge nor giving any quarter. He fired on the lifeboats fleeing from his victim. He kept attacking until the Normandy was destroyed and no one left aboard her could possibly be alive. He knew exactly what he was doing. That was not war. That was assassination, part of a galaxy-wide spree of assassinations that happened that day. And what we are here to do is what the rest of the galaxy appears unable or unwilling to do - exact justice, if only for our little part of it all."
"You know what she'd say," the man replied. "Killing this guy isn't going to bring her back. Maybe... maybe we ought to let it go."
The woman by the window gestured, the air around her rippling with a faint blue-white glow, and the speaking man was suddenly jerked from his seat to hover in midair as she stormed into his face.
"Let it go? Let it go?" she demanded acidly. "Our commander was murdered, Mr. Alenko. Exactly how do you suggest that I go about letting it go? This is an aspect of human psychology I am eager to study in greater depth."
Alenko scowled as if concentrating and broke free from the force holding him up, then stumbled as his boots hit the floor and steadied himself against his chair, which was now behind him.
"Shepard was murdered by a corporation, Liara. Not an individual. You don't think I hate them just as much as you do? She was my commander, and my friend, long before we ever met you. I'm just saying we should focus that hatred on the real culprits, rather than risk our lives for the sake of taking personal revenge against one man."
"No," Liara replied flatly. "I want this man dead. I want the last thing he ever sees to be my face. And I want him to know why."
There was a short, ugly silence; then the burly reptilian chuckled darkly and said, "I gotta say I'm with the asari on this one."
"And that's not something you'll hear a krogan say very often," quipped the other woman.
The krogan chuckled and reached across to bump fists with her. "You got that right, Williams."
"I can speak only for myself, of course," said the quarian, "but I'll tell you this. After I return to the Flotilla, I intend to have grandchildren one day. And I plan to tell them that yes, I served on the Normandy with the great Commander Shepard." He inclined his helmeted head, his mild voice taking on just the slightest edge, and went on, "And I will not have to tell them that well, yes, we did know who killed her... but of course we did nothing about it."
Alenko shook his head, looking pained. "Ash... Wrex... all of you guys are in this too deep."
"Too deep to back out now, that's for sure," said the turian. He leaned forward, folding his taloned hands in front of his chin, and spoke gently. "Look, Kaidan, if you want out, nobody's going to stop you. We've been through a lot together and we owe you that much. We're not demanding that you agree with us. Just... don't try to stop us. Okay? No hard feelings."
Alenko looked from face to face around the table, saw his former shipmates looking back at him with nearly identical looks of blank expectation. He turned to the sofa in the corner of the room, where a seventh person had been sitting silent in even deeper shadow this whole time, and asked,
"What about you, Joker?"
"What about me?" the man on the couch replied. He sat forward, elbows on knees, and tilted back the ballcap he wore so that he could regard Alenko face-to-face. "I say if Kevirin's sure this is the guy that killed the commander and the Normandy? I'd give 20 years off my life for an arm strong enough to break his goddamn neck myself. This guy we're talking about, I mean. Not Kev. I don't wanna break Kev's neck. Kev's my buddy."
"If I wasn't sure," said the slender quarian in his soft, dry voice, "I wouldn't have broadcast the go code."
"Well, there you go. Sorry, Kaidan. Gotta say I'm good with the petty-personal-revenge plan." Joker shrugged. "Way it goes. Win some, lose some."
Alenko sighed and turned to go. "Okay, fine," he said. "I know when I'm licked. Just... " He hesitated at the door, opened it, and turned back for one last look. "It's not what she'd have wanted." Ignoring the others, he looked straight at the asari and said flatly, "You know that, Liara."
Liara stared hard at him for a second, then two, and it seemed to some of the others as if she might lash out at him again... but then her flinty facade cracked, crumbled, and she resembled once more the mere centenarian she really was as she sat down hesitantly in an armchair and buried her face in her hands.
The young asari's breakdown seemed to dispel in an instant the tense, combative atmosphere that had come over the room. The others sat and watched her silently for a minute or two; Alenko let the door close and crossed back to the end of the couch, where Joker moved over to make room for him without a word. No one spoke until Liara had regained at least some of her composure and looked up apologetically.
"I... I am sorry," she said. "You are right, Kaidan. She would not wish us to be the aggressors. That was never... her way." She shook her head ruefully and added with a wry half-grin, "I should not have tried to duplicate her tough-guy act. I am not very good at it."
That got a laugh, slightly strained though it might've been, from all her shipmates, for they had all seen what their late commander had called her tough-guy act in person. Commander Virginia Shepard had been fun-loving and big-hearted almost to a fault, but when the situation called for it, she'd been capable of terrifying fits of badassery - terrifying to those poor saps on the receiving end, at least, the ones who had never seen her choke up at the end of On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
"So... " said Wrex dubiously. "We're not gonna whack this guy?"
Garrus sighed. "No," he said. "Alenko's right. I mean, imagine the hell we'd catch for it when we get to the afterlife."
Wrex snorted. "Yeah. Okay. I just hope nobody finds out about this back on Tuchanka." He shook his head. "No one who didn't know her would understand."
Williams sat back in her seat and regarded the matte-black blade of her RSMC combat knife with a detached, thoughtful expression. "I guess I could just challenge him to a kanly duel," she said, half- serious. "That wouldn't be very sporting either, though." She gestured to the holo of Needa's face that glowered from the table's central projector. "He doesn't look like he's held a weapon since Basic, and that was a long time ago."
"All right, well... if we're wimping out on the revenge thing, what do we do now?" asked Joker.
This sparked a brief discussion that was less acrid, but no less lively, than the one that had come before it. Thus engaged, none of Kevirin's shipmates noticed the soft pweep the quarian's omni- tool made, nor paid much attention as he disengaged from the debate to consult it. They all took notice a few moments later, however, when his voice, raised as Kevirin's almost never was, cut across all of theirs with a single sharply gasped word:
At this they all stopped talking and turned to him, startled.
"Uh... something wrong, Kev?" asked Joker.
Kevirin stared into his omni-tool's display field for a few moments longer, the curvilinear characters of the quarian alphabet reflecting backward off his helmet; then he looked up, the reflections of his eyes glinting just visible behind the duracrys, and said, "I've just finished decrypting Captain Needa's orders. I know what his squadron's next mission is."
"Well, don't keep us in suspense," said Williams.
"Task Force Avenger has been increased to full battle group strength," the quarian went on. "Needa has been provisionally promoted to rear admiral... pending the outcome of his new assignment."
"Somebody's giving him a chance to make up for the Cybertron thing," Alenko mused.
"But what is the new assignment?" Garrus asked. The quarian didn't answer; he'd gone back to reading the fast-scrolling display. "Kevirin?"
The masked face looked up sharply after a few more seconds of absorbed concentration. "I'm... sorry, Garrus. I was re-reading. Trying to convince myself I'd made some kind of mistake... but I haven't." Kevirin shook his head. "Avenger is to rendezvous with the rest of its new fleet in the Orron system, then proceed out of the Corporate Sector to an uninhabited system in the Centaurus sector. There, they are ordered to carry out what Needa's orders euphemistically term a 'recruiting operation'."
Kevirin sat back in his chair, letting his omni-tool's holoshell wink out as both hands dropped into his lap, and said in a flat, toneless voice,
"They're sending him after the Migrant Fleet."
"They call that 'recruiting'?" Williams asked.
"It means they intend to enslave the quarian people," said Liara.
Wrex snorted appreciatively. "That's blatant even for GENOM."
"Oh, they'll call it an offer of resettlement or some such, but the truth is, they don't think anyone will care," Kevirin said. "And they're probably right. Most of the United Galactica's members barely tolerate us as it is. Don't look at me like that, you know it's true. Even the Earth ambassador once called us 'space trash' in an unguarded moment. If GENOM seized the fleet and forced us to work for them, most of the UG's good people would say, 'It's about time they got a proper job.' They might even be looked on as doing us a favor," he added bitterly.
"Ambassador Udina's a prick," said Alenko. "You can't take his remarks for the sentiments of all the people of Earth."
"Yeah, most of us don't issue our statements from that far up our own asses," Joker agreed.
"I know you mean well, my friends, but let's not sugar-coat the facts," said the quarian bleakly. "You are favorably disposed to my people because you've come to know us through me, but most of the galaxy only notices us at all when one of us is caught stealing, or working illegally, or in some other way contributing to our reputation as a blight on the galaxy. The only reason something like this hasn't been tried before was because GENOM knew, after the Battle of the Cron Drift, that the Flotilla was under the WDF's protection. With them gone, this was only a matter of time."
"There are something like 50,000 ships in the Migrant Fleet," Garrus protested.
"Most of them are transports - all armed, but many not very well. Besides, Needa doesn't have to defeat our entire navy. A significant threat to one of the agro-ships and the Admiralty Board will fold." Kevirin sighed. "We can protect ourselves from pirates, but not a proper military force. Our standard doctrine if threatened by the latter is to flee."
"And GENOM's new Interdictor technology can prevent that from happening," said Williams.
"Precisely. Needa's new fleet has three of them. Even if they can't pin down the entire Flotilla, the best those who escaped could hope for would be to end up hopelessly scattered. That would condemn my people to slow extinction rather than enslavement." Kevirin shrugged. "Which is worse? You tell me."
"We have to warn them," said Liara.
"How?" Wrex asked. "We can't just phone them up from deep inside the Corporate Sector. 'Hey, thought you should know, GENOM's comin' for ya.'" He shook his head. "Even if we could get through they wouldn't believe us."
"We'll have to go there in person," Garrus said. "The Avenger has to go assemble the rest of its fleet. If we go straight there, we can get there ahead of GENOM."
"Uh... Captain Needa kind of blew up our ship, G-Man," said Joker. "That's sorta why we're here, I'm just sayin'."
Garrus pointed out the window at the shimmering grid of the orbital shipyards above. "Does it look to you like this planet has a shortage of starships?"
Everyone stared at him.
"Are you seriously suggesting we steal a ship?" Alenko asked. "From GENOM's main military shipyard in the Corporate Sector? Right out from under their noses?"
Garrus would've been grinning if his facial structure had allowed for it. "Yeah."
The turian shrugged. "It's what Shepard would've done."
Alenko laughed. "That's true. Okay, I'm in."
Garrus eyed him sardonically. "I thought you were leaving."
"'Cause we were all in too deep," Williams added with a wry grin.
"That was different."
Wrex gave a tectonic chuckle. "Yeah. We're a lot more likely to get killed doing this."
Breaching Dock Section 3EC's central computer room was reasonably simple, if only because it was a section flagged as "medium priority storage" and thus security was fairly light. Once they had the room open and its Boomer guards neutralized, the squad covered the exits and watched for patrols while Kevirin compromised the computer and searched the inventory records.
"There are four thousand vessels in this section alone," Kevirin noted as the list scrolled through the air above his palm. "Going to need to narrow it down." He trimmed out all the ships that weren't working, then the ones that were too big, then those that were too slow, and then those requiring too large a crew.
"Thirty seconds," Alenko reported, the tension obvious in his voice.
Kevirin worked at the same brisk but unrushed pace, all his attention focused on manipulating the data. Fuel requirements; FTL modes available; communications protocols enabled. He built a complicated web of requirements and trimmed them down, narrowing and narrowing the focus until he'd finally reached what he figured was just about the ideal vessel for their purposes.
"Got it," he said. "Bay 35F. One starship in the 400-to-500-foot range. Class isn't listed, nor name, but whatever it is, it has a required crew of five, accommodations for up to 30. Fueled, armed, factor-one hyperdrive. That's as good as we're going to get."
"Can you bypass the security on the bay?" Garrus asked.
"Not from here. I can redirect the patrol groups to the far ends of the complex, that will buy us some time, but when we penetrate the bay, it'll probably sound alarms. Those systems are hardwired."
"Well, if it was easy everybody'd be doin' it," Williams remarked. "Let's go."
They moved through the corridors quickly and quietly, avoiding the infrequent personnel rather than wasting time in confrontations. Along the hallways, periodic long windows looked out into the docking bay complex. They passed ships of almost every size and description, from Victory-class Star Destroyers awaiting drydock space for overhauls to captured pirate vessels and warships of various nations that had "gone missing" in the wake of the WDF's fall. Liara recognized one as the asari cruiser Sudden Epiphany, the loss of which had been attributed to the supposedly-rogue WDF warship Righteous Indignation by GENOM's PR machine.
"Next one's ours," Kevirin said when they passed the door to Bay 35E. The team tightened up and picked up the pace - until the next window showed them what was in the bay, when they all paused as one and stood staring, dumbfounded. The ship moored in Bay 35F was a Corellian-built Model CR90 corvette, its hull thermocoated in plain grey except for some simple markings:
Kaidan stared. "My God, it's one of ours," he said.
Ashley Williams scowled. "This is one of SPECWARCOM's ships," she said. "How'd GENOM get ahold of it?"
"Judging by the lack of hull damage," Wrex observed, "I'm guessing without much of a fight."
"They must have had infiltrators aboard, like we did," Garrus mused.
Wrex's wide mouth curled up at one corner in a nasty smirk. "Who had better luck than ours."
"Damn shame about Yeoman Chambers," said Williams wistfully.
"Okay, guys," said Kevirin, firing up his omni-tool again. "This is the place. When I crack this door, things are going to get very busy around here. Is everybody ready?"
Wrex primed his shotgun. "Let's do it."
The bay door yielded almost instantly to Kevirin's codebreaker - and, as he had predicted, opening it set off a red strobe light and an alarm whose howl reverberated painfully off the alloy corridor walls. The Normandy team piled into the docking bay lobby in assault formation: Wrex and Williams in the lead, Alenko and Liara maintaining protective cover around Joker, Kevirin and Garrus covering the rear.
Roaring a krogan battlecry, Wrex blasted down the guard standing nearest the door before he even had time to react fully to the alarm, then delivered a telekinetic slam that hurled the man at the security console away from his post and against the far wall, preventing him from sounding any remote alarms. Next to him, Williams shouldered her MA5 rifle and nailed the two guards at the back of the room with quick, precise bursts, clearing the door that led to the boarding lock.
"Clear!" she declared.
"Clear," Wrex concurred.
"I've got movement at the far end," Garrus announced from the hallway door. "Must be a QRF from the dockyard hub."
"We'll be long gone by the time they get - " Kevirin began, but then he saw that the quick response force's point element was charging toward them on a plume of thruster fire. "... Boomers. Right," he added.
Garrus swapped his own MA5 for his Viper sniper rifle, drew a bead, and pegged the lead 55-series Boomer in the middle of its forehead. It crashed to the deck in a spray of shrapnel and coolant, but the two behind it were closing faster than the turian felt like hanging around for. Collapsing the Viper back to storage mode, he turned and shoved Kevirin into the docking bay lobby ahead of him, shouting, "Gangway! "
Kevirin turned to the bay door control and, lacking the time to do it any more elegantly, fried its brains with an electromagnetic pulse. With a burst of sparks from the panel, the security blast shutter clattered down and sealed off the bay.
"That should buy us a few more seconds," he said, following the others to the airlock.
Within five minutes, that entire sector of the dockyard complex was on alert and the external security force was scrambling to prevent the hijacked ship from departing - but by then, the Normandy team was in complete control of the Minuteman Nine and ready to move out.
"OK, we're powered up and ready to go," Joker reported from the helm. He ran his hand along one edge of the panel, flicking a row of switches, and then announced, "All moorings retracted. Kev, you want to get the doors for me, buddy?"
Kevirin pored over the display of his omni-tool for a moment. "Strange system," he mused. "I mean, I can see the underlying logic of it, but... aha. 'Emergency egress override.' That looks promising." He pressed a holokey...
... and through the control room's main forward viewport, the crew watched in surprise as the bay doors, a hundred yards away, were blown from their moorings and flung out into their own orbits of Halstead by explosive bolts.
"When they say 'emergency override' around here, they're not fooling around," said Kaidan, eyebrows raised.
"Thank you, Mr. Zorah," said Joker with exaggerated cordiality. Shoving the impulse throttles forward, he added cheerfully, "We're outta here."
Exhausts flaring white-hot, the Minuteman Nine glided out of her berth like a departing train, accelerating less decisively than their lost Normandy would've but with a certain smooth inexorability. By the time they cleared the blackened remains of the bay doors, they were doing a cool 75 megalights and counting.
"Free and clear," Joker announced, turning the ship onto an outbound vector. Glancing down at the controls, he nodded with satisfaction. "Nice. I mean, she's not the Normandy, but she'll do; she'll do."
"Interceptors are inbound," said Garrus from his place hunched over the sensor scope. "I make it a dozen in the first wave, with at least two more waves behind."
"Defense systems are hot," said Williams at Tactical; then she frowned at one of her readouts, keyed her intercom, and asked, "Wrex, what's the story on our dorsal turrets?"
"Looks like the automatic fire control system's out," replied Wrex's voice, speaking from the upper gunnery bay abaft the entry port. "I think I can slave 'em together for manual... "
"Let me save you the trouble, my good krogan," said Joker with a grin. "Professor, what've you got for me?"
Liara glanced up from the navigation panel, smiled slightly in return, then bent back to her work. Two seconds later, as the first of the wildly inaccurate long-range blaster bursts from their pursuers began to whine past, she reported, "Course computed and locked."
"It's such a pleasure to work with professionals," Joker observed. Then, with a decisive flourish, he engaged the hyperdrive, and they were away. "And that, ladies and gentlemen," he declared with satisfaction, "is how we do that."
The Minuteman Nine emerged from hyperspace in what was, on the charts, an uninhabited, unclaimed system not far from the United Galactica's somewhat vague border with the Cardassian Union. That was, Kaidan Alenko mused as he considered the starchart he'd used to get them here, probably why it was unclaimed. Even though the system had a Class M planet in it, it wasn't exactly the sort of place where the smart money would put a colony.
Right now "uninhabited" was a little bit of a stretch, since the system had somewhere around 17 million sapient beings in it, but since they weren't planning on staying, Alenko supposed it was accurate enough.
"Well, there's something you don't see every day," Ash Williams remarked as the glittering array of the Migrant Fleet swung into view on the control room's main display. "Unless you're quarian, I suppose," she qualified after a moment's thought.
"Patrol ships on intercept course," Garrus reported from the sensors- and-comms station. "They're hailing." Since they'd never bothered to work out whether anybody aboard was actually the captain, per se, he wasn't sure who he was reporting to, and there was nobody to tell him to put the call on the overhead speakers, so he did it of his own accord.
" - identified vessel, you are approaching the perimeter of the Quarian Flotilla. State your name and business."
"You're on, Kev," Joker remarked from the helm.
Kevirin rose from his seat at the back, stepped up next to the comm station so the pickup there would hear him, and declared calmly,
"This is Kevirin'Zorah nar Irvola speaking. I have critical information for the Admiralty. I request priority flag rendezvous clearance alpha four seven four."
There was a pause; then the voice of the patrol officer came back, sounding slightly rattled. "Your starship is unrecognized. Verify your identity."
Without hesitation, his voice still calm and level, Kevirin replied,
So, we'll go no more a roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.
Another pause. Then, "Your identity is accepted. Welcome home, Kevirin'Zorah. Confirm your request for priority clearance."
"Alpha four seven four; red gamma red," said Kevirin.
"What is the nature of the emergency?"
Kevirin folded his arms and tilted his head slightly, a mannerism his shipmates knew was akin to a scowl. Red gamma red was supposed to mean there were no questions asked. Containing his annoyance, however - he was, after all, legally just a long-overdue pilgrim returning home, however dire the straits - he replied, "The Flotilla will come under overwhelming attack within hours. I have information that may help avert disaster."
The patrol officer hesitated again, then said slowly, "Ah... roger that. Red gamma red confirmed. Transmitting your vector for priority rendezvous now. Do not deviate from this course. Patrol out."
Kevirin looked around the control room, looking from one shipmate to another, then let out a breath and slumped slightly. "Right. OK. That wasn't so bad. Now, of course, is the hard part... "
The vector provided by their interceptors took the Minuteman Nine straight into the heart of the fleet, past sleek warships and near- derelict-looking freighters, ancient spaceliners and converted ore haulers, and straight into the control zone of an enormous, unwieldy- looking ship with a bulging hemispherical hull.
"The Sufficiency," Kevirin said. "One of our agro-ships. The Admiralty must be meeting there."
"Catchy name," Williams remarked.
"Given how close to the margin we live, ration-wise, her original name was considered to smack of hubris," Kevirin said.
"What was it?" she asked.
"My people have a sardonic streak," said the quarian dryly.
"OK, ADC is locked on," said Joker. "We'll be docked momentarily." He swiveled to face the others. "Now what?"
Kevirin considered for a second, then said, "Ash. Kaidan. Your species were the most closely associated with the WDF in the public mind. You'd better suit up and come with me. Everyone else, sit tight. This shouldn't take long... one way or the other."
The "shore party" went down to the main airlock; by the time they arrived, the Minuteman Nine had been maneuvered alongside the Sufficiency by the ag-ship's automatic docking system and the docking arm had locked on. As Williams and Alenko checked each other's EVA seals, the Salusian marine asked Kevirin,
"Think they'll go for it?"
Kevirin shrugged. "Fifty-fifty," he said. "I've been away too long to have a feel for the mood in the fleet just now."
They went into the airlock, sealed the inner door behind them, cycled the lock, and opened the outer door. This revealed the Sufficiency 's docking corridor, at the far end of which stood the door to the ship's decon module. There they were met by a quarian biosecurity team, whose job was to scan and thoroughly decontaminate the suits of all three visitors, and verify that the outsiders in particular had complete isolation integrity. This done with dispatch and courtesy, they left the chamber through a side passage to decontaminate their own equipment, and the visitors were permitted through into the Sufficiency's entry port...
... where they were promptly surrounded by heavily armed security officers. Stifling a curse, Williams whipped her rifle from its magmount on her back and drew down on the nearest of them, standing him off, while to her left, Alenko dropped a hand to his sidearm and powered up his bio-amp.
"I hope that was just a reflex, Sgt. Williams," said a quarian officer who stood a few paces back from the security cordon, "and you don't really intend to make a fight of it. You're hopelessly outnumbered and you've nowhere to go."
Williams glared over her rifle's sight at the nearest red-armored quarian, then glanced at Kevirin, who nodded slightly. Gritting her teeth, she stood down the rifle and allowed one of the other guards to take it from her. Opposite, another guard relieved Alenko of his sidearm - though two others nervously kept him covered, since there was nothing they could do about his biotic implants.
"Good," said the officer who'd spoken before. "Thank you." He bowed slightly. "Captain Valan'Kurma vas Sufficiency; your servant. We've no quarrel with you, Sergeant, or you either, Lt. Alenko. You surely must know you're wanted fugitives in the outside galaxy, but here in the Flotilla, the United Galactica's decrees... don't mean much."
Then, turning to Kevirin, the captain went on, "You, on the other hand, are very much under arrest."
From his position above the vast tactical holotank that made up the lower level of the Avenger's flag bridge, Admiral Needa's practiced eye could see at a glance that the operation had opened perfectly. With the bulk of his task force riding the flagship's spacefold wake into the system, the heavy combatants and one of his three Interdictors had arrived already in attack formation. Thirty seconds later, exactly as planned, the other two Interdictors had appeared from hyperspace in their designated positions, overlapping their virtual mass shadow envelopes with the first to effectively bottle up more than seven-eighths of the quarian fleet.
After savoring the satisfaction of a trap well sprung for a moment, Needa felt the first whispers of doubt as he began to realize that there was no sign of surprise in the quarian response to the GENOM warships' sudden appearance. Instead of being thrown into confusion, futile attempts at flight, or a belated scramble for defensive positions, the aliens responded in good order, quickly and efficiently reorienting a fleet already prepared for defense to more directly engage their newly appeared adversaries.
A moment later, Needa found himself speaking by holocom not to a shocked and frightened officer aboard whichever quarian ship was nearest, but instead to a calmly composed group of five officers who had apparently been awaiting his hail in what looked like a conference room.
"This is Admiral Kar'Havath vas Balado speaking," said the man in the center, rising from his seat. "Am I addressing Rear Admiral Lorth Needa?"
Needa mastered his surprise well, his hatchet face betraying nothing as he inclined his head cordially. "You are, sir."
"Excellent. Let's both spare ourselves whatever pseudo-legal gibberish your company's attorneys have ginned up for you to justify this attack, shall we?" Havath asked, folding his arms across his chest. "You mean to enslave the quarian people and we meant to fight to the last for our liberty. I trust we're on the same page now."
A dry smile pulled at Needa's thin lips. "Indeed."
Before the quarian admiral could reply, one of his colleagues had bolted to his feet and cried, "Havath, you fool! You'll get us all killed!"
The other members of the Admiralty seemed to concur - or at least two of them did - and before Needa's astonished eyes, first a shouting match and then a fistfight broke out for control of the Quarian Navy. He watched, captivated by his bemusement, for a minute or so, and was just about to cut the connection and launch the attack when the quarian who had objected got the upper hand and shouted to him,
"Admiral! Wait! Not all of us are so eager to throw our lives away. But we have something to offer you besides our servitude - something that is of greater value to you."
Needa arched an eyebrow. "What could that possibly be?" he inquired skeptically.
The admiral who had led the mutiny leaned closer to the holocam and did something on the wrist computer he wore; a moment later another comm window opened in Needa's flag display. This contained a rotating schematic of a small starship and the cover pages of seven dossiers, each with a file headshot of its subject.
"They arrived the day before yesterday," the mutinous admiral told Needa. "Surely the chance to tie up one of last loose ends of their recent glorious triumph would be worth a great deal to your masters... "
Needa surveyed the holos for a moment and felt, quite apart from the prospect of pleasing the Master with this prize, the tugging of his own desire to complete what had been his greatest victory to date. Capturing the survivors of the Normandy's command staff would be very well-received by Largo, he was sure - of all the WDF fugitives still at large, only a handful carried higher prices on their heads than these seven. Quite beyond that, though, Needa would also take enormous personal satisfaction in delivering them to him personally.
"Let me be sure I am absolutely clear about this," Needa said. "You are proposing to hand over to us the starship Minuteman Nine and her crew of fugitive Wedge Defenders, in exchange for... what? A guarantee that the Corporation will not take your species under its protection?"
"If you want to phrase it that way," another of the mutineers said, drawing a sharp look from their self-appointed spokesman.
Needa frowned. "Such an arrangement exceeds my orders," he told them. "I shall need to consult my superiors." Then, turning casually away from the holotank as though dismissing a subordinate, he said curtly, "Five minutes. Needa out." The window displaying the quarian Admiralty closed.
"Did you hear that, Lanthon?" Needa inquired of his flag captain, who was represented by a separate freestanding hologram (his physical person being one level down on the command bridge).
"Yessir," said Captain Malmek Lanthon. "Shall I hail Corporate?"
Needa gave the man a don't-be-an-imbecile look. "I hardly think we need to bother them with this matter. We'll let the quarians sweat for a few minutes - assuming the blasted people do sweat - and then accept their arrangement."
Lanthon looked for a moment like he might object that such a decision really did exceed his admiral's orders, but then he realized what Needa had in mind and smiled coldly.
"Very good, sir," he said.
Five minutes of a tense and silent fleet standoff later, Needa reopened communications with the quarian flagship and told them they had a deal. With two of the Interdictors dismissed as a gesture of goodwill, the Avenger waited while a pair of quarian impulse tugs towed the Minuteman Nine, windows and drives dark, within range of the Star Destroyer's tractor beam array. Needa noted with dark amusement that the tugs cut their tows and fled at full power the instant the corvette was in range, apparently fearful of being snared themselves. As though an Imperator-class Star Destroyer would waste its time destroying or capturing alien tugboats. Please.
"Scan complete," Captain Lanthon reported. "The ship is powered down except for minimal life support. No explosives detected; seven lifesigns, consistent with expectations."
"Bring them aboard," Needa told Lanthon. "Muster a full assault team in the docking bay. They're supposedly disarmed and secured, but this is a resourceful group of people. Look at what they did on Halstead."
"Aye aye, sir," Lanthon replied; then, a moment later, "Tractors locked on. The vessel is within our ventral firing arcs now."
Bathed in the dim red glow of battle lighting, Ashley Williams looked from one of her shipmates to another. "Looks like this is it," she said.
"Looks like it," Wrex rumbled.
"Assuming they don't just open fire and blow the ship to pieces," Joker added.
Alenko shook his head. "Needa wouldn't dare. He needs us alive... at least for a while."
"Suppose you're wrong about that, though? I'm just puttin' it out there."
"Well," said Garrus philosophically, "then we'll have to go to Plan D."
"The vessel is now within the main hangar bay," Lanthon said. "We'll have grapple lock in 60 seconds."
Needa nodded. "Well, I think we've played out this little charade long enough, don't you, Malmek?"
"Absolutely, sir," Lanthon replied.
"Raise shields. Flag to all ships," Needa ordered crisply. "Commence attack."
"GENOM ships are opening fire," Captain Nella'Karn vas Balado reported to the Admiralty. "And here come those two Interdictors back." She shook her head and added with a trace of grudging admiration, "My compliments to their astrogators; most accurate double microjump I've ever seen."
Admiral Havath nodded. "Signal the fleet to commence the special operation." Then he turned to Vice Admiral Bel'Ergen and added wryly, "OK, Bel, I admit it, you were right. And not just looking for an excuse to punch me."
The leader of the faux mutineers gave his old friend a phantom grin. "That was a side benefit," he said.
"The Board of Admiralty thanks you for the warning," said the young officer, "and asks that you leave the Flotilla immediately."
Kevirin'Zorah's six shipmates - all brought aboard and then detained in some kind of waiting room by Sufficiency security officers while the admirals interviewed their friend - glanced at each other, too nonplussed for the moment to react.
"Uh... we're here to help you," Williams said at length.
The Admiralty's courier gave her a look that, based on the tilt of his head, might have been pitying. "This situation is much larger than you or me. The admirals have resolved to fight it out with GENOM's forces. There is a very real possibility that our defense will fail; if that does happen, then as fugitives from the WDF, your lives will be forfeit. You should flee while you can."
"If we were the fleeing-while-we-can type," Wrex said, "we wouldn't have come here in the first place."
"Yeah, and anyway, we're not just some random clowns who walked in off the street here," Joker put in.
"We have a plan," Liara agreed.
"Are you really that eager to die?" the courier asked, disbelief in his voice. "Six outsiders in one tiny starship can hardly contribute materially to the Flotilla's defense... " His polite front slipping a little, he added with a touch of scorn, "... whether they have a 'plan' or not." Then, stopping himself, he said, "No. I'm sorry, that was cruel. I appreciate your willingness to help us. I honestly do. But the situation here is hopeless." His shoulders slumping, he finished, "The quarian nation is lost. You must escape while you can." He gestured toward the door in the far wall - not the one he'd entered by, which had been locked for the whole hour they'd been here, but the one leading to the corridor that went back to the entry port. "Please return to your ship and be out of the system within the hour."
Then, repeating quietly, "I'm sorry," he left the room.
"Well," said Garrus. "That was cheery."
"And you'll notice nobody said anything about Kevirin coming with us," Alenko pointed out. "He's ex-WDF too; if they do take the Flotilla, they'll kill him sure as anything."
"We can't let that happen," Joker protested.
Liara sighed disconsolately. "Perhaps the admirals are right: The matter is hopeless."
"The hell with that," Williams snapped. "These guys think we're just galactic flotsam - a ragtag band of fugitive aliens."
"Ironic," Wrex grunted.
"Yeah, well, we need to shove that irony where the sun don't shine," Williams growled. She got up from her seat and started toward the locked door. "It's time we showed them and Needa what we really are."
"And what are we, Sgt. Williams?" asked Garrus.
"We're the pros from Dover," Williams replied. Reaching the door, she smashed the lock plate with the butt of her rifle, reached inside, and started hotwiring the mechanism. "Survivors of the best damn ship in the Wedge Defense Force." A spark, a sputter, and the door hissed open. Williams straightened up, turned angry eyes to her shipmates, and declared flatly, "The last of Shepard's privateers."
Kevirin'Zorah consulted his omni-tool. "Ten seconds to grapple."
"Are you sure this is gonna work?" Joker asked, snugging up his straps and making sure the inertial compensator in his seat was set to maximum power.
"If it doesn't, we'll find out in seven seconds. Five. Four. Three. Two. And... capture." The two fingers of the quarian's right hand flew over the holokeys of his omni-tool; then, with a new note of urgency in his voice, he cried, "Punch it!"
The pilot's grin flashed bloody in the red battle-light as he plied his own holocontrols. In front of him, his shipmates grunted as monstrous forces hurled them against their harnesses, trying to peel them clean out of their deceleration couches and fling them back toward Joker.
Bu-55C 33a94c8f and the rest of its squad stood in formation at the Avenger's central docking bay entry port and waited for the ship's automatic capture systems to finish their work on the Minuteman Nine. Like all the Boomer® brand bioroids in Needa's force, 33a and its squad had never been allowed to develop true sapience or emotional responses, so they couldn't be said to be anticipating the operation to come. Like the automatons they were, they were just waiting until the signal to proceed.
EXCERPT FROM JANE'S FIGHTING STARSHIPS, Spring 2289: Though there are sapient Boomers within the Corporation, none are to be found in the Military Arm. For reasons known only to the Master, they're deemed unsuitable for such tasks and restricted to the strictly corporate side of the operation. This means that of the thousands upon thousands of Boomer crew members who pack the ships of an average MILARM task force, not a single one has ever gone more than two weeks without a memory wipe and a careful screening for any positronic anomalies whatever. A positive result on this screening would lead immediately to the scrapping tanks, where the unit's mass would be recycled into (most of) the raw material for a replacement.
On the flip side, all this robotic manpower means that the fleet requires only a handful of actual sapient beings to operate it. The officers and a few key crewmen on each vessel are organics, mostly humans. Everyone else is a Boomer - competent, efficient, requiring no medical attention, and completely without the capacity to complain or shirk, their situational awareness enhanced by an instantaneous subether intranet that links every crewbot to every other in the fleet. In this way, Largo managed to build and staff his company's enormous space navy in almost complete secrecy: secrecy that would have been impossible if the hundreds of thousands of crew the enterprise required had had to be recruited and trained in the normal way.
The Central Command System of GENOM's largest vessels and the task forces whose flagships they are is a marvel of modern military automation. It makes GENOM's ships and fleets the most easily managed, most tightly coordinated combat units in space. Early on, a few of us in the aerospace press speculated that this same centralization might be a weakness as well, but after considering the security measures in place aboard GENOM flagships, we're forced to discard the possibility. By the very nature of the medium, the subethernet is completely unbreachable from outside the system. In order to compromise the computers of an Imperator-class Star Destroyer, the attacker would have to be on board already - and with nearly ten thousand armed and armored Boomers ready to hunt down and exterminate any intruder, that is clearly a ridiculous idea.
As the Avenger's tractor array moved the Minuteman Nine into position, the Star Destroyer's universal docking capture arm swung out and sought the corvette's docking collar. Like all GENOM ships' docking arms, the Avenger's was designed much more robustly than the civilian versions, intended as it was to dock with ships whose crews might well not want a Star Destroyer to dock with their vessel. It locked into place around the CR90's entry port, articulated claws deploying automatically to grab hold of hardpoints.
Inside the collar itself, the Avenger's computer systems linked up with those of the Minuteman Nine through a pair of hardline connectors. Like the arm, these were part of the standard docking hardware of almost all ships in the civilized galaxy, though - again in anticipation of capture by force - the Star Destroyer's hardline plugs were a pair of hardened data spikes driven by pneumatic rams, to defeat the common practice of smugglers to shield their ports with removable or retractable armor. The software the Avenger ran to manage the connections, too, was different from the standard; instead of simply exchanging useful information with the ship's computer in a friendly way, the GENOM docking command system was designed to overwhelm the smaller ship's systems and take control of everything.
Outside, 33a and its squadmates received a signal from Central that the ship had a hard dock with its quarry. Command override was in progress, and the CCS estimated that the Minuteman Nine's hatches would be open in five seconds.
Four seconds later, the system went into a catastrophic cascading failure and the Avenger lost all power for 1.498 seconds.
When the lights came back on, a thunderous drumbeat erupted from PA speakers on every deck and all hell broke loose.
In the docking bay, the gravity went out. Before 33a and the other Boomers had a chance to respond to that in any meaningful way, Central Command began bombarding them - and indeed all the Boomers aboard the ship - at high speed with conflicting or meaningless instructions, overloading their command processing buffers and temporariy immobilizing them. Then the hangar deck's atmospheric containment fields shut down, causing an instantaneous explosive decompression which flung most of the paralyzed units there into space.
All over the ship systems went haywire as the CCS went berserk. Doors opened and closed, environmental systems converted compartments into freezers or ovens, the lights strobed crazily. Only the reactor control system in the engine room seemed exempt from the chaos. On the bridge, the few human officers scrambled to try and figure out what was going on as their Boomer crewmates either froze, collapsed, or walked jerkily in circles, their logic systems hopelessly confused.
And, of course, the ship's deflector shields went down, which was just what the crew of one very small spacecraft nearby were waiting for.
On Deck 5, at the base of the bridge tower, an exterior corridor bulkhead suddenly burst inward, as though someone had driven a giant chisel into the skin of the ship. The point of the chisel, its shining alloy surfaces scraped absolutely clean by its passage through the duranium hull, divided like the petals of an opening flower and spread out on all sides, clamping backward against the inner plating.
By this time the Avenger's automatic safeties were going into action. After severing the hardlines to the Minuteman Nine's poisoned databank, the safety computers started resetting affected systems and regaining control of the ship piecemeal. Unable for the moment to stop the cascade in the Boomer control subsystem, the CCS shut it down altogether, causing all the Boomers aboard the Star Destroyer to fail over to autonomous mode. This reduced their awareness of the bigger picture enormously and their efficiency considerably, but it was better than complete paralysis - and it meant that the dozen or so in the immediate vicinity of the hull breach were able to react, however sluggishly and without coordination, to the intrusion.
The opening wave of the assault was designed to counter that, though. First out of the boarding craft was the five hundred or so pounds of muscle, bone, shotgun, and telekinetic fury that was the last of the Battlemasters of Tuchanka, Urdnot Wrex. Less than a second behind him came Gunnery Sergeant Sir Ashley Williams SC KCOV RSMC, holder of the Shiva Cross for Valor and Knight Companion of the Most Ancient and Exalted Order of Victory: one of Salusia's most decorated soldiers. Eight years of battle alongside - often literally one on either side of - Commander Virginia Shepard of the Normandy had forged the two into an armored spearhead few forces could stand against. A disorganized, disoriented gang of production-model combat Boomers stood no chance at all.
Sixteen seconds after her boots hit the Avenger's deck, Williams ceased firing and cried, "Clear!"
"Clear," Wrex concurred. The two stood at either side of the boarding craft, covering both ends of the corridor, while the rest of their tiny strike force disembarked.
"You OK, Joker?" Alenko asked as he and Liara helped their fragile pilot down the boarding craft's slightly canted ramp.
Joker nodded gamely, wincing slightly as he limped down the ramp. "Couplea broken toes. Nothing serious."
Garrus unracked his sniper rifle and took point as the squad formed up to move into the ship. They'd all studied the Imperator-class deck plans Kevirin'Zorah had scrounged up during the long flight to the Flotilla from Halstead. They all knew exactly where they had to go.
"Kev - time," said Garrus.
Kevirin consulted his helmet's internal chron. "One hundred forty- four seconds," he reported, meaning the time remaining before the Avenger's automatic safeties finished resetting everything and normal service was restored.
"Move out," Garrus said.
Pressed for time but never hurrying, the squad moved through the corridors like a machine, in a variant of the formation they'd used when they stole the Minuteman Nine: Wrex and Williams in the van, Kevirin and Liara covering Joker in the middle, Alenko and Garrus as rearguard. Every corner was reduced, every door breached, with surgical precision. With the Avenger's internal comm system still in disarray, the enemy couldn't coordinate a response, couldn't even realize (as a corporate entity) that the ship had been invaded. Up on the bridge, officers cursed and slammed fists on control boards, helpless to act until the CCS had finished resetting.
One deck below the base of the bridge tower, the three officers of the Command Operations Center hunched over their consoles - Supervisory Lieutenant Carmody at the master console on the upper level, Lieutenants Nelyn and Mogel down in the work pits to his right and left - and struggled valiantly with their malfunctioning systems.
"Whatever it is, it's not in the subether systems," Nelyn reported. "Operations in the rest of the fleet are normal."
"Comms are back," cried Mogel.
"Shut off that damn music," Carmody snapped. "Nelyn, confirm reset of environmental controls."
"That's affirmative, ECS is reset. We lost pressure on the hangar deck, but everything else is - "
"Internal surveillance is back online," Mogel interrupted her. "I've got an anomaly on Deck 5 aft."
"Show me," Carmody said. Mogel put the most relevant holocam's view up in the central display. Carmody frowned thoughfully at what it showed.
"What in the galaxy is that?!" he asked no one in particular.
"I've got Boomer coordination back," Nelyn reported, then looked up from her work to see the holoimage for the first time. With a startled look on her face, she bolted up out of her seat. "Covenant boarding craft!"
Carmody blinked. "Blast! Damned quarians never throw anything away, do they? They must've hit us when the shields reset. Mogel, pattern-rec that image on the rest of the cam net. How many more of them are there?"
Mogel's fingers flew over his keyboard; he frowned at the result, ran the search again just to be sure, then reported, "None, sir. The rest of the ship is clean."
Carmody swiveled to face him. "What? That's absurd. That craft can't have carried more than a squad of marines at the - "
He was interrupted by the sharp crack of a breaching charge blowing the locking mechanism in the center of the Operations Center's upper-level blast door. A moment later the doors parted and slightly less than a squad of marines burst into the room.
Nelyn, already on her feet, drew her sidearm and pegged a round at the nearest of the intruders, but her light blaster pistol was no match for Salusian ODST armor. The bolt glanced off Williams's right shin plate and fizzled against the far bulkhead even as Wrex gunned the tech officer down. On the other side of the room, Mogel made it halfway to his feet and had his weapon halfway out of his holster before a burst from Williams's rifle made him all the way dead.
Carmody, a little too canny to go after the heavily-armored nearest intruders with his little sidearm, took cover behind the central console and fired instead at the man in the middle of the second group to enter the compartment. His ill-fitting, standard-issue armor vest and the limp in his stride as he did his best to keep out of his squadmates' way marked him out as a noncombatant - possibly some sort of tech specialist in his own right - and Carmody figured taking him out might at least slow these maniacs down a little.
His first shot missed high. He didn't get a second. The person to his target's right, an asari wearing a suit of the light CVR armor until recently favored by Wedge Defense Force recon personnel, narrowed her eyes at him, and the next thing he knew an invisible truck had plowed into his body, the impact plucking him from behind the console and slamming him against the COC's after bulkhead. His blaster flew from his hand; by the time it stopped skittering across the room and spun to a halt in the far corner, he had peeled away from the wall and crumpled in a senseless heap on the deck.
"Thanks, Prof," said Joker with a wan smile. "I think that guy mistook me for somebody who knows what he's doing... "
"Defensive positions," Garrus ordered. As the rest of the squad moved to comply, Kevirin vaulted the central console and sat down at the controls. The poisoned apple he'd left for the Avenger's boarding override computer in the Minuteman Nine's main computer was never meant to do more than it had done: temporarily paralyze the ship's defenses and enable them to get this far. Now that he was sitting at the flagship's master console, the case had altered.
"Bad news, team," he said. "As we suspected, the automatics and these three were able to get everything working again." He put up a schematic of the ship on the center display; it teemed with the red dots of Boomer transponders, and a truly startling percentage of them were flooding aft and up toward the pulsing blue dot that served as a You Are Here marker.
"Among other things," Kevirin went on, "that means there's a security response heading this way that may give you flashbacks to Operation Alamo. I'd appreciate it if you'd keep them from getting in here and killing me before I can finish explaining a few things to this computer."
Wrex made his people's equivalent of a grin. "I think we can manage that." Chuckling but otherwise declining to comment, Williams reloaded her MA5, then reached to bump fists with the krogan again.
Joker slid into the seat next to Kevirin, as much for the cover as anything else. "Showtime, eh, buddy?" he said.
Kevirin nodded. "Yes, indeed," he replied. Then, his voice still soft but with a distinct edge in it, he added, "Time to show these assholes what a quarian information specialist can really do."
At which, cracking his knuckles, he tuned out everything around him and got down to some serious work. For him, as for nobody else on the squad, getting this far was the easy part.
Garrus, kneeling by the blown blast door they'd entered by, saw them first through the scope of his Viper, at the far end of a central corridor so long he had a hard time believing he was really aboard a starship - and he wasn't even on one of the decks that went all the way to the bow. Nearly 200 yards distant, they were just an indistinct blue blur to the naked eye - but closing very, very fast.
"Heads up - here they come!" he declared, then - as he had in the Halstead shipyard - shot the lead one.
The upside of their situation, if there could be said to be one, was that the Imperator-class COC was designed to be easily defended. Had the Boomer coordination system been working properly when they arrived, there was little chance that the Minuteman Nine team would have gained entry. Armored half-bulkheads were arranged in staggered echelon across the central corridor leading to the ops room's single entrance, both to provide cover for defenders and to prevent anyone from attempting to ram the doors with a vehicle. The corridor itself tapered gently to the doorway, turning the whole area into a sort of kill funnel.
So the Minutemen were cornered, but they were in a place where that was probably the best position to be in, and they made the most of it. Williams and Wrex laid down interlocking fire that made the central lane almost unapproachable while Garrus picked off outliers with elegant, lethal precision. From a bit further back, Liara used a technique she'd developed with Shepard back in the good old days and employed her telekinetic abilities to throw grenades much further than her arm could propel them. Once they reached the point where they could do the most good, Alenko - easily the old firm's deadliest pistol shot - would detonate them with a round from his trusty Ares Predator IV.
"This does remind me of Alamo," Williams remarked over the roar of her rifle as return fire from Boomer particle beams and blaster carbines laced the air around and above her.
"Yeah, well, holding a choke point against an army of robots, there's only so many ways to vary that theme," Wrex replied.
The problem - as it had been on Salu II, when they had held that line against the geth invaders - was that no matter how many they scrapped, the Boomers just kept coming, pouring up the central corridor and in from branch hallways, up from under the deck and down from the ceiling through emergency hatches and J-tubes, as though they'd kicked over an anthill and the whole colony was rushing to the defense. They'd run out of bullets before GENOM ran out of robots at this rate.
Back inside the COC, Joker sat and watched nervously as Kevirin silently worked, alternating between the console and his omni-tool as he patiently, methodically, but quickly broke all the massive system's security measures down one by one and pushed them aside. The din of gunfire and explosions from the hall was like a physical beating, and that was from this far back - he could only imagine what it must be like to be out in that hell. Well, OK, Wrex was probably loving it, and Ash, too, she had that weird sort of ancient-Salusian-warrior-chick vibe going on when things got really busy, but...
He caught movement out of the corner of his eye, turned, and saw to his horror that
a) Supervisory Lieutenant Carmody was back on his feet because
b) he was a Boomer.
"Aw, hell no," said Joker as the lieutenant burst out of his synthetic skin into attack mode and charged.
Lieutenant Jeff "Joker" Moreau, Wedge Defense Force, knew only three things absolutely for sure at this particular moment.
One: He was all that stood between his friend Kevirin'Zorah and a charging Bu-55C Boomer that, until moments before, had been the supervisory officer of the starship operations center he and his shipmates were in the process of hijacking.
Two: Joker being completely useless at combat, both he and Kevirin were thus both about to die.
Three: It was really going to hurt.
He stood his ground anyway, his back to the back of Kevirin's seat, yelling incoherently as he blazed away with a blaster pistol he knew was too weak to do more than pit a 55's armor. Maybe he'd get lucky and put out one of its optics.
Out in the corridor, though Joker couldn't know it, his shipmates were on the brink of being overrun by the sheer weight of numbers the ship's Boomer crew could bring to bear. Some seconds before Joker's realization, Garrus had been the first to go down, knocked cold by the shockwave of a particle beam he only partially managed to dodge, one of the pauldrons sheared clean off his armor.
With the defenders' sniper down, one of the attacking Boomers was able to slip through the web of fire being laid down by Wrex and Ash Williams when one of them had to pause to reload, then cleared the last center barrier and made for the doors in a booster charge. Teeth gritted, Liara met its charge with all the psychokinetic strength her willpower and her natural metapsionic gifts could provide, bringing it to a dead stop in midair. Kaidan added his biotic TK, shoving the mechanoid back slightly despite the full-throttle blast of its thrusters, then pumped a full magazine from his Predator IV into its head and sent it down twitching and sparking.
"Nice save, Liara," he said. Woozy from the exertion, she didn't answer, and a moment later a bolt from one of the blaster carbines some of the 33-series crewbots carried took her high in the chest, strobed out what was left of her kinetic barrier, and sent her sprawling over backward.
Williams got it next: as she ducked behind cover to reload, a P-beam furrowed the crown of her ODST helmet, its pressure wave slamming her face down to the deck.
That, on top of what had just befallen Garrus and Liara, seemed to set off a bomb inside Urdnot Wrex. Roaring at the top of all four of his lungs, he surged up from behind his cover, discarded his spent shotgun, deployed a collapsible Gamorrean vibro-axe, and just waded into the wave of Boomers who had tried to follow up their gunners' success with a final push on the defenders' position. The sheer ferocity of his counterattack would have panicked most organics, and from a tactical standpoint it gave even the Boomers pause as their expert systems realized that they had gravely miscalibrated his threat rating. Shattered Boomer chassis and disturbingly lifelike fragments of humanoid 33Cs flew in all directions as the last of the Battlemasters made plain his displeasure.
Wrex came out of his fugue only when he ran out of targets within axe's reach. As often happened in such cases, his first realization was that he was really in trouble now - the next wave was a dozen yards out and closing fast, their fire ripping the air all around him, pitting his armor, and scorching his flesh, and there was still another wave not far behind them. There were way too many of them for even him to take on alone, particularly with his shotgun lying uselessly on the deck next to his sprawled squadmate behind him. He was, barring a very significant situational change which he had no power to effect, certainly going to die in the next two minutes.
As also often happened in such cases, his second realization was that he didn't particularly mind. He took a tighter grip on the axe and prepared to put in a final two minutes that would echo through the annals of krogan warfare for the rest of time. A flash of that poem Williams liked so much flickered through his mind:
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
And then -
- as it had when the crew of the Normandy strove with Gods -
- the situation suddenly changed.
Back in the Command Operations Center, Kevirin'Zorah completed his work, raised both fists in the air and made a declaration in his native language roughly equivalent to, "Touchdown!" Then he seemed to notice that Joker wasn't sitting next to him any more, swiveled, and observed the scene.
Joker stood behind Kevirin's seat, hyperventilating, and stared down at the deck. Sprawled practically at his feet, the Boomer that had been Lt. Carmody twitched fitfully, its brain - like that of every other surviving Boomer on board - locked into a perpetual diagnostic loop. He turned and looked at Kevirin, then both regarded the twitching Boomer for a few seconds.
"Well," said Kevirin pragmatically, "that was well-timed."
"Yeah," Joker panted. "Let's go see who else survived... "
"We can't take much more of this, Admiral," Captain Nella'Karn vas Balado warned her superiors. "The fleet is standing to in good order, but our star cruisers simply can't repel firepower of that magnitude."
Vice Admiral Ergen nodded gravely, looking over the tactical plot. "It's only a question of time before one of those bastards breaks through the line and gets a shot at the Sufficiency. If they breach the ag hold, we could win this battle only to starve to death next year."
"Well," said Admiral Havath philosophically, "we're committed either way. We've got nowhere to run." A touch wryly, he added, "We'll just have to trust in the pros from Dover... whatever that means."
"Captain!" the Balado's chief sensor officer called from her post. "Something strange going on in the GENOM fleet! Their formation's starting to break up!"
"I'm getting signals from all the forward elements," Karn's comm officer confirmed. "The GENOM ships have lost fire cohesion. Captain Daav of the Forteviot says it's almost like they're shooting at random."
"This must be it," Ergen said, excitement creeping into his voice.
"We've had no signal from the assault team," Karn reminded him. "If we launch the full counterstrike prematurely, we might well - "
She was cut off by the crackling, partially flattened voice of Garrus Vakarian, blaring from the overhead speaker on a heavily encrypted emergency band: "Quarian command, this is Strike Force Overlord. Archangel, Archangel, Archangel!"
Havath punched a fist into the opposite palm. "Damn fine work, Overlord! Flag to all ships: Archangel! I say again, Archangel! "
Lorth Needa watched two things happen simultaneously, neither of which he could bring himself to believe. One was his beautifully drilled, perfectly deployed fleet completely falling apart. The other was the Quarian Navy, up to this point putting up a valiant but futile defense, suddenly counterattacking with twice the firepower they'd given any indication of possessing up to this point. Within five minutes the damned aliens had eradicated one of his Interdictors and two of his Victory-class ships. The quarians were suddenly fighting like demons and his own vessels were barely fighting at all.
He stormed out of the turbolift onto the command bridge and demanded, "Malmek, what the hell is going on?!"
"I don't know!" Captain Lanthon replied, clearly on the edge of panic. "The Boomers, they, they've, they've gone mad!" Seeing his admiral's skeptical look, the captain made an effort to pull himself together and explained a little more calmly, "They wiped out everybody on the other ships, then started in on each other. It's like their IFF systems are painting everyone as an enemy."
Needa looked around the bridge. Beyond the huge panoramic windows forward, he could see the fleet continuing to go to bits - one of the Victory-class ships, not yet that hard hit by the quarians, appeared to self-destruct before his horrified eyes - but inside everything was still calm and quiet, the Boomers at the various bridge stations still at work.
"Why aren't these playing up?" he asked.
"It's not happening aboard Avenger," Lanthon said. "I don't know why. In the rest of the fleet they're going berserk, but ours have just shut down. I had to override the units on the command level back to autonomous mode just to maintain some semblance of operational control up here." He took off his cap and ran the fingers of one hand nervously through his hair. "Everything's gone horribly wrong since we brought that Wedgie ship aboard."
"Forensic will have an interesting time working out how that happened," said Needa sourly, "but I thought the COC had recovered from it."
Lanthon shook his head despairingly. "It seemed like things were back under control for a few minutes, and then - well, look at it!" he said, gesturing vaguely toward the carnage happening outside the windows. His fragile composure unraveling again, he almost wailed, "They told us the CCS was secure! They said this couldn't happen!"
As if to punctuate the captain's cry of dismay, the bridge entrances - one at either end of the multitiered room's aftmost, uppermost level - blew open.
There were only seven of them, but they hit the Avenger's bridge like a typhoon. Seconds after drawing his sidearm, Captain Lanthon was the first to fall, cut down by a burst from an old-fashioned Thompson submachine blaster wielded by a battle-armored quarian. As his flag captain fell, Needa fled forward and down, running down to the lowermost level where the flight dynamics and engineering consoles were.
The bridge's 33- and 55-series Boomer crew, still in autonomous mode thanks to the late Captain Lanthon's quick thinking, rose from their consoles and put up a fierce defense, but they might as well have been trying to fight with laser pointers for all that they could stand against this assault. Strike Force Overlord scythed them down like grain, tearing through every combatant in their path.
Three of them were telekinetic. All were armored and heavily armed. Despite the information in the dossiers Needa had skimmed, it appeared that they all had combat training. Even the archaeologist, flagged an outright noncombatant in the files he'd seen, carried a blaster - a BlasTech DL-44 - and quite well knew how to use it. Belatedly, he remembered a note he'd seen in the briefing documents for the Shepard mission, the year before:
Viewed objectively, the core of Commander Shepard's crew appears to be little more than a gang of alien misfits, but the commander herself is a military leader of exceptional ability. Operational reports indicate she has personally trained her command team in special operations tactics and weapons skills, developing them into an elite irregular mission force. Take nothing for granted when planning an operation against Normandy and her people.
From behind the bridge engineer's console, Needa saw the irresistibility of their assault and recognized that the day could only end one way. Pulling off the console's back panel, he started making a modification he had been trained in years ago, but had assumed at the time he would never need to perform.
Damn the woman, he thought bitterly as he worked. Even in death she's found a way to ruin me.
In three minutes of furious noise and light, it was all over.
"You might as well come out of there," said Garrus. "There's nowhere for you to go."
Rear Admiral Needa rose from cover and came slowly around the main engineering console, appearing surprisingly calm for a man who had just had his bridge crew mown down around him while his fleet was cut to ribbons outside. His expression was even slightly disdainful, not too far from a sneer, as he surveyed the motley group who had brought his career to such an ignominious end. The quarian who had killed Lanthon; a turian with part of his armor blown off; a helmetless Salusian ODST with a Vorpanol patch in the wrong skin tone gaily decorating her forehead; a krogan who looked like he'd recently taken on a whole street gang by himself for fun; a scruffy, limping human in someone else's armor vest; another with the slightly pinched expression of a man nursing a violent headache; and an asari with a nearly-through blaster burn on her armor's plastron and an unwiped trickle of blood at the corner of her mouth. Battered and in many cases wounded, they all held weapons and they all had looks in their eyes that said they'd sleep perfectly well if he provided an excuse to use them a little more.
They looked like they'd been through an entire war to get this far, expending resources ordinary beings could only dream of possessing.
They looked like they could've kept it up for the rest of the day.
"I suppose," Needa said conversationally, "you're pleased with yourselves."
"Save it," said Alenko.
"Rear Admiral Lorth Needa," said Kevirin'Zorah formally, "you're under arrest for making aggressive war upon the quarian people without provocation."
"Let's see if your bosses decide to own that when you're before a United Galactica admiralty court," said Wrex nastily.
"I'm afraid that won't be happening," said Needa calmly. Resting his fingertip casually against one blinking button on the engineering console he'd just been behind, he went on, "You have two minutes to discard your weapons, reverse whatever sabotage you've committed upon my ship's computers, and call your alien allies to a halt. If you haven't completed those tasks in that time, I shall have no choice but to send the Avenger's fold core hypercritical. We'll all be killed, of course, but at this distance, I should imagine most of the quarians will be as well." He raised an eyebrow archly and added, "Kuat's spacefold system is notoriously unstable, you know."
"You don't have the quad to blow yourself up," said Wrex.
Needa gave him a faintly pitying look. "Clearly, you've never worked for Master Largo," he said. "Trust me, annihilation by protonic reversal is by far the preferable alternative to the fate I would earn by letting you defeat me."
"You're bluffing," Williams snapped. "I call."
Needa shook his head with a thin, fatalistic little smile.
"I'm terribly sorry," he said, and then...
... didn't press the button. When he tried and nothing happened, he glanced at his finger, then gasped as an invisible force seized him, forcing his hands to his sides and lifting him bodily to hover in place an inch or two above the deck. He tried to struggle, but only his eyes could move as the pressure mounted to a crushing intensity.
While he hovered there, Liara T'Soni put away her sidearm, removed her helmet, dropped it to the deck, and walked around the bulk of her krogan shipmate to stand before Needa. Her CVR-3F boots gave her sufficient lift that she was looking him right in the eye as she stood and regarded him.
After watching him fight to breathe for a moment, Liara said calmly, "On behalf of the ship's company of the Wedge Defense Force starship Normandy, and particularly our late commanding officer, Commander Virginia Shepard, I would just like to say... "
Then she hauled off and headbutted him so hard his world exploded in stars and pain and blackness. Releasing her psychokinetic grip, she let him collapse, crumpling in a bloody-faced heap on the deck, then stood looking down at him for a moment before continuing,
"... apology accepted, Admiral Needa."
"You know," said Ash Williams from the depths of the Minuteman Nine's wardroom hot tub, "for a minute there I thought you were really going to just crush him."
Lying on the sofa, Liara adjusted the ice bag on her forehead slightly and admitted, "I considered it."
"Why'd you stop? Not that I'm complaining," asked Kaidan from behind the bar.
"I was thinking," said Liara slowly, "that it would be very satisfying to just keep tightening my grip... to watch the light go out of his eyes... to get what I told you on Halstead that I wanted. The last thing he saw would have been my face, and he would've known why." She put the ice bag aside, sat up, and made eye contact with Kaidan. "And it occurred to me then that Benezia would have appreciated a moment like that." She shivered slightly. "It is said that all asari eventually become their mothers... but it is a fate I would prefer to delay for a while longer yet."
There was an awkward pause.
"Good call," Ash remarked from the tub.
"Hey, you guys," said Joker from the wardroom door. "Time to get ready. We gotta go watch Kev get his medal."
Actually, they all got medals, but for Kevirin'Zorah - who until just before the operation had been under arrest for the very serious crime of revealing the Flotilla's location to outsiders - the honor was especially sweet. Most young quarians dream of returning from their pilgrimages with a suitably impressive gift for their people, but few dare to dream as big as deliverance from corporate slavery or a largely undamaged Imperator-class Star Destroyer.
"That's assuming the United Galactica Admiralty Court declares her droits of war, of course," Admiral Kar'Havath told the Normandy team, assembled in the Admiralty Board ready room on the Balado after the ceremony. "I suspect they will, though. Think of it - a nearly new super-dreadnought. At a stroke, we'll nearly double the firepower of the Navy."
"You may need it if GENOM decides to try again," said Kaidan, but the admiral shook his head.
"After the way their corporate headquarters - what's the human phrase?"
"Threw Needa under the bus," Joker supplied helpfully.
" - exactly, after that, one doubts they'll be so rash a second time. Not now that they've seen the level of public outcry that resulted from the first one." The admiral chuckled dryly. "It appears the general public may dislike us, but they dislike the Corporate Sector's bonded- labor policies even more."
"Although," Vice Admiral Bel'Ergen pointed out, "we do still have a loose end to tie up."
"True. But I think our young friend here will make short work of that problem," Havath said.
Kevirin took a moment to realize the admiral was talking about him, then said, "... sir?"
"Kid, the job you did on that GENOM computer was the most amazing piece of datasystem work I've ever seen," Havath told him. "Effective immediately, I'm putting you on my staff as the Flotilla's information security officer."
"Uh - I - that is - what?!" Kevirin sputtered.
"Your first assignment will be to find out who transmitted our coordinates to GENOM in the first place - since I know it wasn't you."
Kevirin stared at the admiral as if he'd grown another head for a second, then recovered his aplomb and replied, "Er, well. That could be tricky. Whoever it was would have been very careful to cover his traces." Warming to the topic, he glanced at his friends with what their experienced eyes registered as a sly grin, then turned back to Admiral Havath and went on, "To stand any real chance of uncovering that information, a person would need to have penetrated a secure comms database from the GENOM side of the transaction - one of their really big secure systems deep in the Sector, like the MILARM Admiralty central computer on Halstead. It would take a real datasystems wizard with a qu - with nerves of steel to pull off a hack like that."
Before anyone could comment on that, he rezzed up his omni-tool and projected the image of a pilfered GENOM command memorandum above its emitter, adding in a more offhanded tone, "Although if someone could pull off such a feat, that person would have little difficulty in establishing that it was Rear Admiral Karda'Lek vas Norrath."
Stunned, the other four admirals turned to the end of the table, where their most junior member stared back. Then, as if suddenly realizing what had just happened, Karda'Lek bolted to his feet and went for his sidearm.
A moment later he found himself looking into the cavernous barrel of a krogan M-300 Claymore shotgun as Wrex said pleasantly, "I really wouldn't, buddy."
They stayed a month, long enough to see the United Galactica Admiralty Court condemn the captured Star Destroyer as a rightful prize of war - property of the Quarian Navy - and sentence Lorth Needa, the only human survivor of the GENOM operation against the Flotilla, to life without parole in Takron-Galtos for war crimes. As predicted, GENOM itself managed to wriggle off the hook, claiming that Needa's operation was undertaken on his own initiative and without proper authorization, and affirming that the Corporation had neither interest in nor authority to annex the quarian species in this way. On the quarian side, Karda'Lek was exiled - banished forever from the Flotilla - for trying to sell out his people. He went quietly, bitterly protesting that he had only wished to save them from extinction.
Now, as the Flotilla prepared to move on from the 71 Centauri system, the crew of the Minuteman Nine gathered on the hangar deck of the newly rechristened quarian Star Destroyer Archangel to bid farewell to one of their own.
"I wish I could go with you," Kevirin'Zorah vas Archangel told them, "but my place is here now. I suppose I had to grow up sometime."
"Well, listen," said Kaidan, "if you need us, just holler."
"We'll come a-runnin'," Ash concurred, then added with a wry smile, "if you're allowed to tell us where you are."
"After all you've done for us, you'll always be welcome in the Flotilla," Kevirin told her.
Garrus nodded. "We appreciate that," he said, "but for your own security, it's better that we don't know where you're heading from here."
"Yes," Liara agreed. "If we do not know where the Flotilla is, we cannot be made to tell anyone."
"True." Kevirin hesitated, then sighed and said, "For now, I guess this is goodbye, my friends."
"My people say chiren ayyâr," said Ash, hugging him. "Until we meet again - 'cause we will."
"It's been a pleasure working with you," Garrus told him with a clap on the shoulder.
Liara, tearing up a little, hugged him as well and said that she would miss him; Kaidan shook his hand and told him it had been great times. Joker, in spite of his fragility, mustered a great back-slapping man-hug.
"You take care of yourself, man," he said, "or I'm gonna have to come back here and kick your ass."
Kevirin laughed. "Look after yourself as well, my friend," he said. "Keep in touch. I'll keep searching the nets for the latest research into Vrolik's. One day we'll find someone who'll crack it."
"You bet," said Joker. He stepped back, regarded the quarian for a moment, then said, "Awww, c'mere," and gave him another hug before turning and limping into the airlock.
The others followed, one by one, turning back and waving before disappearing into the Minuteman Nine. Finally only Wrex remained, standing next to the door and regarding Kevirin thoughtfully.
Smiling behind his visor, Kevirin inclined his head and said in his best impression of Virginia Shepard's matter-of-fact tone, "Wrex."
With the very faintest quirk of one corner of his wide mouth, Wrex nodded back. "Kev," he grunted, and then he turned and boarded the ship, shutting the outer airlock door behind him.
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
originally released on the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
based on characters from Mass Effect by BioWare
"So, we'll go no more a roving"
by George Gordon, Lord Byron
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
They were a dozen parsecs out and making for the Rim when Garrus joined the others in the control room.
"OK," he said, "I've got a plan. I did a little sniffing around and found out that Pan Worlds Enforcement Inc. is already registered as a hunter-investigator firm out of Omega as part of the ship's old cover for WDF Special Warfare. I just need to figure out a way to hijack the record and list the six of us as the principals. Under false names, of course."
Ash made a face. "Omega? Ugh. Does that mean we actually have to go there?"
"Probably eventually," Garrus said. "Their H-I registrar's not too picky - I imagine that's why SPECWARCOM used it in the first place - but even if there was no other reason, it is a decent place to get supplies."
"Inasmuch as it's a decent place for anything," Joker chipped in from the helm.
"Well, yeah, but when you're us you don't have a lot of options," Kaidan said.
"You said you need to figure out a way to do that," Wrex noted. "I take it that means it's not actually done yet."
"Work in progress," Garrus replied. "I hold my own with computers, but I'm no Kevirin'Zorah. I have to admit, we could really use another dedicated info specialist."
"Um... " said a quiet, slightly nervous, completely unfamiliar voice from the back of the room, "... I might be able to help you with that."
The six whirled to see a slim figure half-hiding in the shadow of the stanchion next to the environmental control console. Hesitantly, that figure emerged into the light and stood regarding them: another quarian, this one female, her lightly armored encounter suit mostly black with some red accents and wrappings of a very dark grey fabric. As with all her people, her age was difficult to tell, but from the sound of her voice and her petite build, she might've been in her late teens or early twenties.
"Wh - who are you?!" Joker blurted.
"My name is Arna," she said. "Arna'Havath nar Balado."
"A stowaway, are you frickin' ki - wait a second, Havath?" Ash blurted. "Are you the admiral's daughter?!" Arna nodded, a trifle sheepishly.
"What are you doing here?" Kaidan asked her.
Arna hesitated again, glancing down at the deck; then she seemed to come to some internal decision, raised her phantom eyes to his, and said firmly, "I've just started my pilgrimage."
The Minutemen stared at her for a few seconds, too baffled to speak. Garrus, recovering first, smirked slightly.
"Another mouth to feed," he said.
E P U (colour) 2012