"Don't forget to introduce yourself to EDI, the ship's new artificial intelligence."
Tali looked over her shoulder at the Cerberus agent, contemplating what she just heard. Introduce yourself to the Cerberus A.I. that controls the ship and everything on it. Including even Shepard, maybe. She couldn't even bring herself to look at the Commander. She turned and the door sealed shut behind her, leaving her in a short deserted corridor.
The cold, sterile hall held no memories for her. When Shepard had said they were returning to the Normandy, she knew it wasn't going to be the same vessel, but she had assumed it would at least be an Alliance ship instead of a Cerberus privateer. She was alone, her marine escort all but wiped out, the lone survivor light years away on his way home where she should have gone. Instead, she was trapped on an enemy starship with the one man she trusted above all else their willing ally. She cursed her foolishness at agreeing to come aboard at all when in her heart she knew that man had died two years before.
"Welcome aboard, Tali'Zorah nar Rayya," a female voice said from a panel across from her, snapping her back to the now. A holographic sphere made of swirling dots materialzed and pulsed with the vocalization.
"vas Neema," Tali corrected the dots.
"I apologize. Our records of you are out of date. I will update them immediately. May I direct you to your quarters, or would you like to proceed to Engineering?"
She felt like a fool for leaving the briefing room without asking for directions, but wanted to leave before Shepard could offer to show her. She was angrier still that the virtual abomination had already started gathering intel on her. Worse, it had been listening the whole time and clued in she was lost. She weighed the options given. "My quarters, please."
"Please follow the indicator lights on the deck to starboard, and turn left to the CIC. Yeoman Chambers will attend to you."
Tali sighed heavily as soft blue lights in the floor tracked to a newly opened hatch. She followed through what appeared to be a lab and research facility where a one-horned salarian paced back and forth in front of a bench full of instruments. He muttered to himself and paid her no attention, but she felt relief at the sight of another non-human. She continued left through another hatch that opened into the CIC.
It was the Normandy, but not the Normandy. It had the same basic layout, with the central command area ringed with outward facing crew stations. The corridor to the cockpit stretched out of view. It seemed cold and sterile, brightly polished and perfect, without the scrapes and dents that showed people lived there. It was as soulless as the AI that controlled it. Against her better judgment, she scanned the room for a familiar face and found none.
"Tali?" said a new voice, also female, but much more alive. A young human woman with short brown hair and a friendly smile stepped toward her from the command console. "Welcome aboard. I'm Kelly Chambers. Keelah se'lai."
"Keelah se'lai," Tali returned the greeting with suspicion. The woman's mannerisms and disposition did not match the emblem on her uniform.
"Sorry about the confusion with your name. We only have what was in the Alliance database at the time of your discharge." Chambers scribbled some notes on her datapad.
"Well look, EDI's already fixed it! And now I've got you on the registry. I think I even spelled your name right," the human smiled happily. "May I show you to your quarters? You're probably exhausted after what you've been through."
"Please." Quarters, she thought. They are expecting you to stay. But at least it's a moment to be alone and think.
"Right this way." Instead of stairs leading down to the crew deck, Chambers lead her to a central elevator. "Deck three."
Tali moved to the back of the elevator and leaned against the wall as the doors closed. Chambers kept trying to make eye contact with her, which made her glad for the faceplate that obscured her dour expression.
"I heard what happened to your team down there," Kelly said.
Meaning the entire event has been fed into the beast's memory banks, Tali surmised. Her squad's death would undoubtedly be picked apart by Cerberus analysts for weaknesses. What they could do to the fleet with such knowledge made her heart sink. She didn't want to risk further compromising herself so she said nothing.
Chambers continued, "I'm very sorry. I know it's difficult... to lose friends like that. Commander Shepard pushed through authorization for you to use a private link on the deep space array if there's anyone you'd need to talk to. For any reason."
"That's very kind."
The elevator door opened onto the crew deck and Tali followed the human into the corridor. Chambers turned and stopped after taking two steps. "He's so happy to have you aboard, Tali." Kelly said. "He missed you so much. After he got back from Freedom's Progress, all he could talk about was how good it was to see you and how he wished you could have come back with us."
"Really?" Tali said, unsure. She noticed Chambers' eyes flicker towards something behind her.
"Really. He's spent every free minute trying to get in touch with all of you, the old crew, and it's just been hard on him... since, you know, he's been back. He's really felt alone here. The more familiar faces we can get the better."
"I see. Are none of the original crew on board?"
The yeoman's sudden laugh was loud enough to make Tali take step a back and she ran into an obstruction where one shouldn't have been. Twin-taloned hands gently cushioned the blow behind her. "Careful now," said a familiar voice with a peculiar multi-toned lilt. "I know how those helmets ruin your peripheral vision."
Tali spun around to see Garrus Vakarian smiling down at her, arms outstretched. She launched herself against him, this time on purpose. Garrus returned the hug and laughed as Kelly beamed from the side of the corridor, shooing curious crewmates along as they walked by.
"Oh my-" Tali took a step back, "I can't believe it, you-" She saw the circular patch covering his right cheek and neck. It was the size of her faceplate and surrounded by bruised, scabbed flesh. She reached up and hovered her hand over it, careful not to touch. "Keelah! Are you all right?"
"Oh, it's nothing. Close shave with a mass cannon. Very bad for the complexion."
"He gave us quite a scare," Kelly said. "Dr. Chakwas worked on him for hours."
"Dr. Chakwas is here?" Tali said excitedly.
Garrus nodded, still smiling. "You think I'd let just anyone work on this face? We can drop by her office when we're done here. She'd love to see you. And Joker, too, if we can get him away from the helm."
Kelly watched the byplay with interest. Tali had gone from sullen and withdrawn to talking a mile a minute. Not wanting to disturb the flow, she decided it was time to excuse herself. "I've got to get back to my station, but I think Mr. Vakarian can help you from here."
"Oh, I'm sorry," Tali said, having totally forgotten the human standing next to them. "Thank you so much, Miss Chambers."
"Please, call me Kelly. If you need anything, just let me know," Kelly said and stepped into the elevator.
"Hey, what about me?" Garrus said. "I have needs, too."
Kelly punched a button pointedly and repeatedly. "Sorry, hon, door's closing, can't hear-" And the doors closed.
Tali couldn't help but laugh again. "Still the ladies' man."
"Don't believe it, she loves me." Garrus said. "A bit on the chirpy side, but she's good people."
"For Cerberus," Tali said flatly. The moment was clearly over.
"Hmmm, noticed that, did you?"
Tali looked up and down the hall, feeling exposed. "Is there somewhere-"
"My quarters are right over there. I had a feeling you might have some questions."
Garrus' berth was not spacious by any means, but compared to the multiple bunks crammed into the main quarters it was luxurious in its solitude. It was just large enough for his neatly made single bed, a small desk with a fixed chair and an equipment locker. A Cerberus emblem bounced around the inactive display above the desk. There were no personal effects of any sort to denote that these quarters belonged to anyone in particular. Garrus motioned Tali to the human-styled chair and took a seat on end of the bed so they could talk face to face.
"I love what you've done with the place," Tali said.
"Well I don't spend much time here."
"Are we being monitored?"
Garrus shrugged. "Undoubtedly. But I've never felt any concerns about speaking my mind on this ship."
Tali leaned back in the chair with her arms folded across her chest, her eyes glowing behind her faceplate. She blinked once.
"Obviously you have reservations," Garrus said.
"I'm waiting for you to convince me."
"Where would you like me to start?"
Any hint of familiarity disappeared from Tali's voice. "Are you with Cerberus now?"
"No. I don't think they've relaxed their hiring standards to include other species."
Tali nodded curtly. "I thought the same before they recruited one our people to infiltrate and attack the flotilla. Though he wasn't wearing one of those very stylish uniforms they've got now. I really like the new logo."
Garrus cocked his head. "I hadn't heard about that."
"Oh, I'm surprised it wasn't posted on the ship's bulletin board."
Garrus regarded Tali with a scowl. This was not going as he had expected. Their cheerful, polite little mechanic was anything but. He opened his mouth to say so but checked himself. For the first time he noticed the scorch marks on her suit, signs of patchwork repairs, and specks of what could only be dried blood spattered across her body. But most of all, it was in her voice. Her weary tone was harshly familiar in his ears and he felt ashamed for his presumptions. "What else do you want to know?"
"Shepard died. How is it he commands this ship?"
"Well... He did, in fact, die." Garrus paused for a moment to collect his thoughts and form a coherent explanation. "Cerberus recovered his body and over a period of time was able to reconstruct it. His memories, his personality, everything that made him who he was were brought back up to the moment of his death. The exact procedure is classified even amongst Cerberus personnel but it was apparently very expensive and resource intensive. From what I understand his was the first and only attempt, successful or otherwise."
Tali frowned behind her mask. "So they snapped their fingers and conjured him back to life. Why? To kiss and make up?"
Garrus ignored her sarcasm. "Human colonists have been vanishing without a trace. Tens of thousands of them, entire colonies at once."
"I know," Tali interrupted. "The collectors. I saw at Freedom's Progress."
"You also know how successful the Council was in making people forget what nearly happened to the galaxy and who was really behind it."
Of that, Tali was painfully aware. The Citadel Council from the start had swept the magnitude of the reaper threat completely from the minds of everyone in civilized space, then blamed the whole incident on the geth. It was that negligence that put the original Normandy in harm's way two years before... and gotten Commander Shepard killed. She decided to hear Garrus out.
"Cerberus believes the collectors are working on behalf of the Reapers," Garrus continued. "Shepard was, is, the best proof that the threat is real. Having lead the successful defense against the Reaper's first attack, Cerberus viewed him as the only counter to another incursion if the Council and Alliance were not going to take action. They built this ship and made Shepard commander so he could."
Tali's gaze was unyielding. "And you believe that?"
"Explaining it to you now I can see how it might seem a little far fetched."
"Try a lot. Aside from their reasons for doing it, that they were able to bring him back just like he was before is ridiculous. It's a clone at best. Or a Cerberus operative altered to look like him at worst. This is a trick! It's the only logical explanation."
"But for what reason?"
Tali threw her hands in the air with frustration. "Are you serious? The same reason they played god with the thorian! The same reason they tried to resurrect the rachni! They used their own people as test subjects, I- you know what they're capable of. The man we knew risked his life trying to stop them. And how many of them did he- did we kill? They're the enemy! You think they just forgot? I haven't!"
Garrus took a deep breath. "I know it's hard to believe, but it's him."
Tali strained to keep her voice steady. "How can you be so sure?"
Garrus ran a hand through his fringe and exhaled deeply. The last thing he wanted to do was relive the events of the past two years. "Did anybody tell you about what happened to me after the Normandy went down?"
"Well, I- I tried to keep in touch with everyone after the crew broke up," Tali stammered, "but... everyone just went their separate ways, and I had to return to the Migrant Fleet..."
"It's OK, Tali. It's not your fault. We all should have tried harder."
Tali found herself studying the floor near Garrus' feet. Garrus shrugged off his friend's awkward pause. "Anyway... I tried my hand at freelancing in the Terminus systems."
"I thought you went back to C-Sec?"
"I did, for a while. But after the fight at the Citadel, it was just too... limiting. Shepard's a terrible influence in that regard. So I formed my own squad and set out to clean up Omega. The details... are best left for some other time. I will tell you that none of my men left Omega."
I know how you feel, Tali thought, but she didn't want to go into details either. The memories were still too fresh. "I'm sorry."
"So was I. It was my fault they died, or so I thought. I could have exfiltrated out of Omega at my leisure. They had me cornered, but I wasn't trapped. It's difficult to say this now, but in reality, I don't think was planning to leave after what happened. Ever."
The turian's matter-of-fact delivery surprised Tali. "What?"
Garrus waved her off. "Long story. But I did make it out. Unknown to me, Shepard had his mission. Cerberus learned of a sniper on Omega who was wiping out mercs there by the dozens," he pointed to himself, "so they sent Shepard to recruit him because he'd be an asset to the mission." He leaned forward on the edge of the bed. "Now I didn't know anything about what had happened to Shepard, how he was alive, why he was there, or even how he'd made his way through the mercenary blockade to get to me. We barely had a minute to say hello before the shooting started. Not much of a reunion. But he stood shoulder to shoulder with me and we decimated everything the entirety of Omega could throw at us.
"We fought them all off on foot, dozens of them." Garrus smiled, eyes lost in memory, and motioned to his scarred scalp. "Then this happened. The cowards came at us with a gunship and they got me with a lucky shot. Somehow, Shepard took it out and dragged me, unconscious, out of that cesspool. And then... he helped me set it right. Which is itself another long story."
Garrus paused, his silver eyes locked with hers. Turian's didn't cry but there was no mistaking the intensity in his voice. "But that's not what's important. He saved me, Tali. Not just from Omega. He didn't have to face the combined wrath of every criminal on Omega to recruit a single sniper. He didn't have to take me all the way back to the Citadel to help me find justice for my men. He risked his life for a friend, just like he did for you on Haestrom. Just like he always did, for all of us. And that's how I know."
Tali's own biology did allow her to cry and she hoped her suit's environmental compensator would keep her mask from fogging. She had never seen a turian, let alone someone as composed as Garrus speak so emotionally. She had been so focused on Cerberus that she forgot how she came to be on the ship, how close she had come to dying with the rest of her people... and who it was who had come to her rescue.
"And you know what happened afterwards?" Garrus asked.
"No, what?" Tali said after she steadied herself.
"Shepard came in here with a couple of bottles, some human stuff and a turian brandy he'd picked up somewhere. He said if I wasn't going to talk to him, I was sure as hell going to drink with him."
Tali sniffed and laughed. "That does sound like our Shepard."
"He never pressed me directly. He just poured the glasses full and then started talking about old times... he wanted to know what happened to everyone." Garrus sighed. "It was hard explaining it to him. We'd all gotten closure and moved on, but for him, it was like he woke up the next day and we were all gone. I updated him as best I could, and we started toasting those who made it off the Normandy, and those who had not."
Tali felt tears welling up once again but did not interrupt.
The turian smiled sadly. "And that's how the bastard got me. We'd gotten on a roll about the past and he asked me about how my team got together... who they were and why I chose them and how I got such a motley crew of aliens to work together without killing each other and I spilled my guts to him. It's unbelievable. He'd awakened from a coma to find the whole galaxy had left him behind but he used it as a pretext to get me to talk about my problems." He shook his head. "The funny thing is I used to always just... tolerate it when he'd come around for his little chats. All those questions. I can't remember another CO who spent so much time talking to his subordinates."
Tali stopped trying to fight back the tears. "Oh, I know. he was always coming down to Engineering, asking me about my pilgrimage, about my life in the fleet, the admiralty board, politics... I couldn't believe an outsider would care."
"He does," Garrus said, once again staring right into her eyes. "Never doubt it. You know, he still makes the rounds here, talks to the crew. I don't think this new bunch knows what to think of it. He knows all their names, where they are from... he's already driving them crazy with his questions. Just like old times."
"I don't know if I can still take it," Tali said with mock exasperation. "I'm out of practice. And my ears are still ringing from Haestrom."
"Well you should prepare because you can bet he'll come looking for you. When he does, please talk to him."
Tali smiled. "It's Shepard. Do I have a choice?"
Garrus chuckled and smoothed out his fringe. "You can only hide so long on a ship this size. He'll corner you sooner or later. And once again I seem to be picking up his bad habits. Did my tedious tale have any effect? Are you going to stay?"
"Oh... I- I don't know..."
"I hope you will, and not just because we could use your talent. It's good to see you again, Tali."
Tali's leaned forward to hug her friend. "It's good to see you too. I missed all of you!" Years of separation melted away. For the first time in a long time, Tali felt a sense of belonging return, if only a little bit. At the very least, she knew she was no longer alone.
Garrus pulled back and looked down on her with a worried expression. "In spite of what you may think, you are free to do as you wish. Shepard will see to that. But I know he's hoping you'll stay."
"I know, I just don't know if... I can work for Cerberus."
"I probably shouldn't steal his thunder, but you'd report directly to him, not to Cerberus. Just like I do. He wants you to be chief engineer."
Tali couldn't believe what she heard. In the quarian fleet, that position was considered by some to be more important than a ship's captain. "Really?"
"Really. We need you." Garrus' mandibles twitched slightly. "He needs you, Tali. Forget waiting on him. Why don't you go talk to him now?"
"Well, I – He could be- I don't want to interrupt him if he's busy. I'll just wait for him in engineering."
"I'll take you down whenever you're ready."
Tali rubbed her gloved hands together nervously, aware of her tattered, disheveled appearance. She still wasn't sure what she would say to Shepard if they were alone, but not because she was afraid of him. If this were some kind of trick, she had to admit Cerberus had done one hell of a job. Perhaps she could stay after all. She owed Shepard that. "Uh, maybe you should show me to my quarters first? I can't report to my new captain looking like this."
Garrus stood up and waved to the door with a flourish. "Of course, after you. They've seen fit to berth you right next to me, which in itself should show how highly they hold you in esteem."
Tali got up and walked to the door without looking back, and she regretted that Garrus could not see her smile. "Perfect. I've been here half an hour, and Cerberus is torturing me already."
The End - Continued in spirit in "Friends Like These"