Author's Note: For no particular reason, I had originally set the timeline for the Mass Effect side of this fic just before Priority: Rannoch. In writing this chapter, however, I decided to change the setting to shortly after Priority: Thessia. I've gone back and tweaked a few details in the previous chapters to reflect this.
Chapter 4: To Talk of Many Things
"I'm uploading the logs now, but I don't know how useful they're going to be," said Liara apologetically. "I think our sensors were damaged in the… whatever it was that brought us here."
"Hmm. What makes you say that?" asked Dax from across the lab, her eyes fixed on the readouts in front of her.
Liara sighed. "The readings just don't make sense," she admitted. "We recorded elevated neutrino levels, exotic radiation, the strangest energy patterns—even EDI couldn't explain it all. It has to be a malfunction."
Dax looked up from her monitor with a reassuring smile. "I think your sensors are working fine, actually. Most of this is pretty normal when ships come through the wormhole." She stepped around the table to stand beside Liara, calling up another log to display side by side with the Normandy's. "See? These are the sensor readings from the last time we took the Defiant through. There's the neutrino spike, the verteron radiation, the subspace distortions, all basically the same as what you recorded. This is good—it gives us a baseline to work from."
"Wait, hold on!" Dizzied by the implications of Dax's words, Liara stared at her incredulously. "Are you talking about a stable wormhole? Please, I'm an archaeologist, not an astrophysicist, but I'm pretty sure that's impossible!"
Dax tipped her head and shrugged. "Well, it's certainly never been observed to occur naturally. The verteron nodes that we think are responsible for holding it in place don't form on their own. But this one was artificially constructed."
"Artificially constructed?" Liara demanded incredulously. "By whom?" The technology, the sheer power it would take to tear such a hole in the fabric of time and space, let alone to keep it stable enough to permit reliable passage, was… well, astronomical. Nigh unimaginable.
With a twinkle in her eyes, Dax replied, "By the aliens who live inside it."
"Inside the…" Liara trailed off. It was too much. There was no way any of this could be true, and she blushed angrily at the thought of having fallen for such an obvious trick. "You're having me on, aren't you?"
But Dax actually looked surprised at her reaction. "Not at all," she said seriously. "It took us by surprise a few years ago when we first discovered them, too. Or perhaps I should say, when they discovered us."
"…By the Goddess." Liara's head spun as she imagined the possibilities that presented. "If these people can build something like this… maybe they can help us get home!" Then a rather more unsettling thought occurred to her. "Or maybe they brought us here in the first place. But to what purpose, I wonder?"
Dax shook her head. "I think we can rule out the wormhole aliens' direct involvement. They don't often involve themselves in the affairs of other species, except the bajorans."
"The bajorans?" Liara asked, puzzled. "What do they want with the bajorans?"
With a shrug, Dax replied, "Nobody really knows. But they seem to care about what happens to Bajor—in fact, the bajorans worship them as gods."
"I see." Liara frowned thoughtfully, the parallels uncomfortably obvious. The disturbing things she'd learned in the Temple of Athame on Thessia, the revelations she wanted with all her being to deny, began to clamor insistently for her attention.
Though she herself had never been particularly religious, the idea that the figure asari had worshipped for millennia as a goddess might actually have been a Prothean had shaken her profoundly. It made her feel as though her entire culture was based on a lie. But then, to a species just beginning to be self-aware, the spacefaring Protheans could easily be seen as godlike, endowed with power and knowledge far beyond the early asari's primitive comprehension. Perhaps the wormhole aliens had been the same to the ancient bajorans. And perhaps, just perhaps, such "divine" intervention in a species' development wasn't an uncommon thing at all.
She had tried to dismiss the idea out of hand. But to do so was a rash, emotional, almost reflex reaction, especially in the face of all the evidence. Evidence of precisely the type she was specifically trained to study and interpret. It was entirely unbecoming of her, as a scientist, to ignore it.
"Dr. T'Soni?" Dax's voice, tinged with concern, drew her out of her reverie. "Are you all right?"
Liara blinked and shook her head, realizing belatedly that she'd been staring off into space for a bit too long. "Yes, of course, I'm fine," she said. "I'm sorry, it's just… how did the bajorans react to learning that their gods were really just… people?"
"About like you'd expect," Dax replied with a shrug. "Some rejected the idea as blasphemy. Others took it as proof that their faith was right. Some lost faith altogether. Major Kira could tell you more." She studied Liara for a moment. "You have more than a scientific interest in this, don't you?"
"Perhaps I do," Liara admitted. "I've recently learned of a similar alien interference in my own people's development, and I'm having a bit of a… you might call it a crisis of faith." She shook her head again. "But it doesn't matter right now. None of this is going to help us figure out how to get the Normandy home. We should get back to work."
Dax nodded solemnly. "Okay. But I think you should talk to Kira when you get the chance. She'll understand."
"I'll do that, thanks." Liara turned back to the computer console. "Now, about these sensor readings…"
"So you're saying that by running an electric current through this element zero stuff, you can actually raise or lower the mass of anything nearby?" O'Brien huffed in amazement, a grin spreading across his face. "That's incredible."
Tali nodded enthusiastically. Even though he couldn't see her face through her mask, O'Brien thought he was getting the hang of her mannerisms enough to tell that she was smiling, too. Or whatever the Quarian equivalent was. "We just call it the mass effect," she said.
"Well, this… mass effect must be how you got around the problem of infinite mass at light speed!" O'Brien exclaimed, almost giddy with excitement. It was so elegantly simple. "Lower the mass of the ship—"
"And instead of needing infinite energy to accelerate, you just need a lot of it," Tali finished. "That's why the Normandy's drive core is so huge. There's enough eezo in it to reduce her mass to nearly nothing. She's one of the fastest ships in the galaxy! Er… our galaxy, anyway. In our timeline. Universe. Whatever." She shook her head, pressing one hand to her mask in a gesture that might have been embarrassment or exasperation. "Keelah, this is so confusing."
O'Brien chuckled. "Won't get any argument from me." He looked up at the towering sphere of the drive core. Though not nearly as tall as the warp core of, say, the Enterprise, it was far more massive, taking up a large portion of two entire decks. It seemed almost too large for a ship this size. "How fast canthe Normandy go?" he wondered aloud.
EDI's voice emerged from an unseen speaker, making O'Brien jump. "In standard FTL, the Normandy is capable of a maximum velocity of approximately three thousand times the speed of light."
"Thank you, Compu—uh, EDI." O'Brien frowned as he ran the calculations in his head. "Three thousand times lightspeed, that's equivalent to… warp nine point nine!" He nodded appreciatively. "Right up there with some of the fastest ships in Starfleet. Not bad. Not bad at all."
Tali tilted her head curiously. "Warp? You mean, like folding space?"
O'Brien couldn't help but smile. Her curiosity was insatiable, especially when it came to ship technology. In the time they'd spent working together, she'd probably learned as much about Starfleet vessels as he had about the Normandy. But then, for a member of a culture that named its people after the ships they served on, that was probably par for the course. "Not exactly," he said. "Warp engines distort the space immediately around the ship, which sort of rides the—"
The alarmed voice of one of Normandy's engineers interrupted his train of thought. "Kenneth! What are you doing?!"
"Rerouting power away from the starboard thermal induction regulator. It needs to be replaced."
"Wait! I haven't shut down the—" There was a muffled thud from below, followed by a faint whiff of scorched electronics. The first crewman—Gabby Daniels, if O'Brien remembered correctly—heaved a weary sigh. "Nice going, Kenneth."
Tali swore, running back to the two crewmen's shared console. "Donnelly, what did you do?"
"He blew out the quantum flux inhibitor," Daniels snapped before Donnelly could speak. "We're lucky the whole drive core isn't fried."
Donnelly at least had the good grace to look sheepish. "Oops?"
"He's hardly left his station since we got here," said Daniels, a hint of something softer creeping in under her biting tone. "I don't think he's slept in two days. He's starting to make stupid mistakes."
"Well, it could have been worse." Tali shook her head. "Both of you, take a break. Get some sleep, and come back in the morning when you've got clear heads. I'll go down and fix the inhibitor."
"Yes, ma'am. Come on, Kenneth, let's get out of here."
Tali turned to O'Brien. "I could use a little help, if you don't mind, Chief."
"Not at all." O'Brien picked up his toolkit. "Lead the way."
The engineering subdeck was filled with an acrid haze and the whine of the ventilators. O'Brien coughed, envying Tali her sealed enviro-suit. But the air was clearing quickly, and the fire-suppression systems hadn't activated. Thank God for small favors. The sparking, crackling unit in the far wall—obviously the blown inhibitor—dangled precariously from a handful of wires and ruptured conduits, the panel that must have covered it lying on the floor halfway across the room. "Good thing no one was down here when it blew," he commented.
Tali laughed, her reaction taking O'Brien by surprise. "Keelah, I can only imagine if Jack was still here! She'd have had Donnelly's head for this!"
"Jack was part of Shepard's crew when we went after the Collectors last year," Tali explained, still giggling. "She was… let's say, a loner. She claimed this space as her quarters. And she definitely wouldn't take kindly to wall panels exploding while she was trying to sleep, or whatever she did down here."
O'Brien still didn't see what was so funny, but he could tell there was a lot she wasn't saying, and decided it was probably best not to pry. "Well, I sure wouldn't want my quarters exploding on me, either."
From a cautious distance, Tali scanned the dangling component with her omni-tool. Part tricorder, part miniature replicator, part weapon, all packed into a holographic interface, O'Brien couldn't help but feel a pang of jealousy. "Omni," indeed—it seemed to do almost anything he could imagine. It could replace almost all of his own equipment by itself. He wondered if he could talk Commander Shepard into parting with one.
"Okay, it should be safe to remove," Tali said. "I need to disconnect the remaining conduits carefully, though. Chief, can you support its weight? We need to move it gently; it might be unstable."
O'Brien gingerly took hold of the device, angling it just enough to keep the sparks out of his face. It took only a few moments for Tali to free it, and he set it on the room's small workbench. "I'll start patching up the damaged conduits," he said.
"Thank you, Chief."
They worked in relative silence for a while, Tali's concentration on the task at hand overriding her penchant for chattiness. But finally, there was a loud click and a faint whine, and the inhibitor flared to life. "Got it!" Tali exclaimed.
"Great, I think we're ready over here, too," O'Brien replied. "Need a hand reinstalling it?"
"Please. No, wait." Tali studied her omni-tool's readout, her body language suggesting a frown. "Something's wrong." She bent over the device again, the whine growing louder and rising alarmingly in pitch. "I think there's a redundant—"
But before she could finish her sentence, the inhibitor exploded in her face.
The blast left O'Brien momentarily blinded and his ears ringing, but aside from a few scratches from flying shrapnel, otherwise uninjured. But Tali had been right on top if it! He blinked furiously to get his vision to clear, and when it did, what he saw made his breath catch in his throat.
O'Brien leapt into action. He slapped his combadge as he knelt beside Tali's unconscious form. "O'Brien to infirmary! Medical emergency, Normandy subdeck! We need emergency transport!"
Julian's voice came back over the comm, cool and professional, cutting through O'Brien's near panic. "Acknowledged, Chief. Stand by."
The last thing he saw before the transporter dissolved his vision was Tali's face, pale skin and delicate features marred by cuts and burns, exposed behind her shattered mask.