Chapter 1 – Ship of Fools/Crew of Idiots
"Do you think there was any chance he survived the explosion?"
Prazza waved his hand, a gesture he always did whenever dismissing someone's opinion. More often than not he did this even when he had no idea what he was talking about, and this time was no exception.
"Of course Shepard did not survive! His body was probably ripped to pieces. Very small, very bite-sized pieces."
"But suppose he wasn't," said Vrael. "Suppose he was somehow thrown clear of the blast?"
"Then he would suffocate in the vacuum. Or maybe he was caught in the planet's gravity, and if that happened, the heat of re-entry would have incinerated him. And before you ask if he might have somehow survived that, then the speed of impact with the planet's surface would have splattered his remains across many kilometres. It would be like throwing an egg against a wall really, really hard, and watching the gooey bits fly everywhere, and then your mother comes in and scolds you for playing with your food, and you beg her not to chain you to wall this time and...wait, what we were talking about again?"
Tali wished she could tell those to two to drop their conversation, but doing so would only get her into an argument, and she was in no mood to argue with those dolts. Didn't they understand that barely two months had passed since Shepard's death and the Normandy's destruction? Couldn't they see that any mention of it still stung her deeply? Maybe they did not realise how insensitive they were being. There was a human saying, that one should never ascribe to malice what could be better explained by stupidity, and amongst the stupid Prazza had few equals. It was far more than ordinary stupidity, which was merely ignorance. No, Prazza was aggressively stupid; he did not just fall into the all-consuming black hole of stupidity, he made a running jump and hurled himself headlong in the void all the while screaming "WAAAGH!" His friend Vrael, in full Vrael'Grashnahk vas Rassgat (reputed to the the ugliest-sounding name in the flotilla, enough to frighten elderly ladies and small children), was an argumentative, arrogant individual who was exceedingly provincial in his thinking. Vrael was aghast when he had heard that Tali was serving about an Alliance vessel, believing that she was being enticed to abandon her people and worse, was also being seduced by the human commander.
The latter, of course, was not entirely untrue.
At once the mental barriers went up. Thinking of Shepard would only bring her grief and remind her of certain feelings, feelings that were better off buried and never given any consideration. Instead Tali focused on her present task – integrating the new mineral scanner, or more precisely the Arcturus Geoscience Inc. Perkele5000 Mineral Surveyor, into their ship's systems. Unlike most hardware on quarian vessels, this particular device had been purchased new from a human trading vessel, and Tali still had the original brochure which promised, among other things, to "make mineral scanning fun for the whole family!" It described at length how the Perkele5000 could scan a planet's surface for element zero, platinum, palladium, iridium, unobtanium, and nonsensium, and could do so at a far greater rate than any competing mineral scanner. Of course, the benefits of these features was belied by the lengthy warnings written along one side of the device: Warning: The Perkele5000 Mineral Surveyor emits high levels of ionising radiation during scanning. Do not aim towards face or genitals. Do not operate while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Please ensure that mineral rights have been obtained before commencing extraction operations. Arcturus Geoscience Inc. takes no responsibility for any uprisings in native populations do to inconsiderate mineral extraction. Below this, the words MADE IN FINLAND were etched into the metal.
The challenge was getting the mineral scanner to work with their ship's systems, which would have been antiquated fifty years ago. The ship was named the Maldon – a human-built vessel purchased for next to nothing from a somewhat less-than-scrupulous reseller on the Citadel. It was small, consisting only of two decks. The upper deck was where the ship's pilot – Vrael in their case - steered the vessel, and the lower deck held the engine room, crew bunks, and a meagre storage space. When it was purchased the Maldon was barely spaceworthy, let alone able to power up its engine, buts the quarians were well-known for their ability to turn worthless junk into something usable, and so within a week the ship was up and running.
Normally, Tali would have been down in engineering, a place she considered her natural home, but the admiralty board had made the rather unusual decision of putting her in charge of the mission. Their objective was simple: travel to an as-of-yet unnamed blue hypergiant star somewhere in the Shrike Abyssal and scan the system for any minerals that the flotilla could use. In Tali's mind, this was a thoroughly unnecessary and dangerous assignment, as hypergiant stars emitted a staggering amount of radiation that would incinerate anyone foolish to enough to come too near them. Were their truly no other viable systems for mining in the flotilla's flight path? The Migrant Fleet was truly in a bad way if they had to resort to mineral extraction in such hazardous systems.
Occupying her familiar position in the engine room were two men, and although Tali was not very well acquainted with them, she knew enough to know that she would not be getting along very well with them. The chief engineer was named Juodaan'Viinaa vas Lumikko, a violent, drunken sot who, according to rumour, had secretly installed a device into his suit that pumped alcohol directly into his bloodstream. The other man was Juodaan's "understudy," named Skaal'Gard vas Vrija, was scarcely any better. While Juodaan was usually violent and wrathful, Skaal was the most miserable, despondent individual Tali had ever encountered; the sort of man who acted as if living were the most insufferable burden imaginable. It was widely rumoured that, instead of going on his Pilgrimage, he had actually hidden himself away in the ductwork of his ship for a few weeks and cobbled together his "gift" from various parts he had salvaged there. No one could actually prove this, of course, but the rumour refused to die.
Why had the admiralty saddled her with such an incompetent crew? At first she wanted to think it was some sort of test – that if she could accomplish her mission in spite of her crew it would mean she was worthy of being considered a leader. Then Tali began to wonder if this were not some insidious plot to get rid of her. She quickly dismissed that notion, certain the admiralty board bore her no ill will. Besides, this was a simple mineral prospecting mission; even if her teammates were all gibbering idiots, how many ways were there for things to go wrong? It would still be an unpleasant couple of weeks, however, and her plan was to spend as little time dealing with her crew as possible. That would prove difficult, due to the small size of their ship and the fact that she was in command.
In a few minutes Tali was finished integrating the mineral scanner into their ship's systems. Rather than engaging in conversation with her crew, which would lead nowhere pleasant, she decided to retreat to the captain's quarters, which were more accurately called the captain's cubbyhole. Unfortunately Prazza and Vrael were already in her face, wanting to include her in their horrid conversation.
"So what do you think, Tali'Zorah?" Prazza asked in his usual condescending tone. "Do you think Shepard was blown to bits in the explosion, incinerated during re-entry, or plastered all over the planet's surface?"
She had to resist the urge to strike him. Tali had never told anyone in the flotilla about her feelings towards Shepard; why would she? For one of her kind to be involved romantically with a non-quarian was anything but traditional; to her knowledge, no one in the Migrant Fleet had ever had such a relationship with an outsider, and she knew that anyone who did would be looked upon with suspicion at best and revulsion at worst. Not that any of this mattered now. Shepard was gone and now she had four bumbling crewmen to deal with, two of whom were now making her very, very angry.
"Shepard died a hero," she said, clenching her fists. "And you're mocking him?"
Prazza was not bothered by her indignation in the slightest. "Come on, we're just having some fun. It's not like he's around to hear us."
But if he could, he'd probably throw you out the nearest airlock, she thought. "Imagine you lost a friend, Prazza. How would you like it if I were asking these kinds of questions about him?"
Vrael turned away. "You're wasting your time, Prazza. She's still mourning the loss of that human captain. Can't imagine why. Their kind and every other race have nothing but contempt for us. I'm surprised the human captain even tolerated Tali'Zorah's presence on his ship."
That was a blatant lie – Shepard never once treated her as if she were anything but a valued member of the Normandy's crew – but there was little point in arguing with Vrael. Tali might have been the one in charge of their mission, yet that certainly didn't mean her crew respected her leadership. She knew she wasn't ready for this kind of role, so why had they given it to her? Was it because she was an admiral's daughter? Being honest with herself, Tali had no desire to follow in her father's footsteps. She'd seen so much of the wrangling and infighting that went on amongst the admirals that the position of admiral held little appeal to her, and in her heart she knew that she could do more for her people by going out in the galaxy than by taking part in political intrigue and power-play.
They were still a day away from their destination, provided that the Maldon did not suffer some sort of catastrophic breakdown, which was a very real possibility. Maybe it had been a good ship in its day, but now Tali had about as much trust in it as she did in the kindness and compassion of a vorcha. It was no Normandy, that was certain...not that many ships could compare favourably against the Normandy. Losing Shepard was painful, yet losing that ship had hurt her in a different way. There was just something indescribably horrific about seeing such a beautiful piece of engineering ripped to pieces as if it were nothing. The vast majority of ships in the Migrant Fleet were utilitarian in design and - if she dared to say it - rather ugly. The Normandy, on the other hand, was sleek and modern, with every part of it showing the dedication and skill of its designers. Seeing it destroyed was like seeing the life's work of a gifted artist dashed to bits before his eyes.
On the Normandy, it had taken her a while to get used to how quiet it ran. Now that she was on the Maldon, she was having trouble getting accustomed to how rough and noisy it was. Just from listening to the sound of the engines Tali could tell that the injector in the port fusion torch was out of alignment by several microns and that the plasma manifold was in need of a good scrubbing. Those were hardly the only issues. The ship's VI firmware was several years out of date and the engine control software needed to be updated as well, as a critical bug had been discovered in the software that, on rare occasions, would cause a vessel's drive core to explode with the force of around fifty kilotons. Fixing these problems would be child's play for her if the Maldon were in dock, yet there was nothing she could do about now. That was a pity, because ship repairs would have taken her mind off Shepard.
Absorbing herself in her work might have kept Tali from thinking about him during her waking hours, there was no escape in her dreams. Sometimes she would dream that Shepard hadn't really died in the attack, but rather had boarded the Collector vessel and killed them all using only a knife. Then she would awake, and her heart would be crushed by the sudden realisation that none of it was real. As time went on the dreams became more intense, eventually culminating in a dream in which she and Shepard were married in the Citadel Presidium. It was wonderful, at least until a krogan crashed the ceremony and ate one of the guests. Even in her dreams nothing went right. And that was saying nothing about her other recurring dream, which involved being pursued through a ship made entirely of cardboard and cheese by blunderbuss-wielding platypuses who constantly extolled the virtues of Objectivism.
In the end, Tali was only fooling herself about Shepard. She knew how humans showed affection to one another, as it was no different from how her people did before they driven off their homeworld. Now that they were trapped inside these suits it was difficult for even two quarians to be close to one another, and it would be even more so for a member of another species. Shepard would never feel anything for someone whose face and body were always hidden, but even if Tali could live outside her suit, didn't most people prefer their own species when it came to that sort of thing? And by some chance they didn't, would they ever desire one of the quarians, of all people, when they were among the most despised and distrusted species in the galaxy? No, of course they wouldn't. It was pointless to ruminate on dreams that would never come true. Far better to put her mind towards completing their mission, as mundane as it was. That was something that could come true.