Chapter 15 – Star-Crossed Lovers
If there was a place in the galaxy that was equivalent to hell, it would be the star system of Eta Carinae.
One of the most luminous stars in the Milky Way, Eta Carinae was as large as the orbit of Earth around the sun, and brighter than four million of Earth's suns. It's emissions were so intense that the star's own gravity could barely hold it together, and it continually spewed hot gas from its poles, creating an immense nebula that surrounded the star and hid admiral Xen's research base from any observers. The star's intense radiation also provided a limitless source of energy, as even a modest array of solar panels could provide enough power to run several starships. This also meant that communication via conventional comm channels was impossible, as any transmission would be lost in the star's radiation. The only solution was to use a quantum entanglement communication relay, a device which was widely understood to perform several functions that were widely considered impossible, thus causing "potential damage to fabric of reality." Manufacturers of quantum entanglement relays dismissed these claims, stating they were little more than "socialist propaganda." What socialism had to due with particle physics was something they refused to elaborate on.
The current quantum entanglement comm relay installed on admiral Xen's base was none other than the Comm-Post® Quantobuddy Entango-Link, sold for the low, low price of 150 million credits. This particular system was highly praised by numerous publications, most notably Citadel Electronics, widely considered the most authoritative publication among publications related to consumer electronics. They rated the Quantobuddy four out of five stars, praising its "crystal clear reception, even when being pulled in the all-devouring maw of a black hole." However, they deducted one star for the system's "occasional opening of a portal into a screaming nightmare realm from which there is no escape."
Eta Carinae's mass relay was located over a thousand AUs from the star itself, necessary to prevent ships from being incinerated by the star's intense heat. Why the Reapers had constructed a mass relay leading to such an obviously inhospitable star system was anyone's guess, though it was entirely possible that they had done so only as a joke. When the Normandy exited the relay, the star itself appeared as mere pinprick in size, but it was so overwhelmingly bright that any windows on the ship had to automatically darken in order to dim the light.
Of course, a far more processing concern was the half-dozen ships stationed near the relay, all of which had locked their weapons on the Normandy.
The ships were former mining vessels that had once belonged to Arcturus Geoscience Inc., and had since been purchased by admiral Xen at a hugely discounted rate. Their weapon systems had been upgraded, to the point where even the Normandy, as heavily-armed as it was, was no match for them. Shepard's immediate reaction was that he had done a very foolish thing in coming here, forgetting that the admiral was expecting him. Needless to say, this was not one of his prouder moments.
Mere moments later, Daro'Xen's voice came over the comm channel. "Commander Shepard...I am so pleased that you were able join me. Be aware that any attempt to flee will result in the immediate destruction of your vessel. I also advise against the use of your ship's stealth system; I imagine that your heatsinks will overheat quite rapidly due to the star's intense heat and radiation emissions."
"So you're the one who's been experimenting on humans," Shepard retorted. "You know how many people like you that I've buried? More than I can count, and I can count pretty high, you know!"
"Oh commander, you do misunderstand me! I am not here to do battle, but merely to talk. I ask that you come aboard my ship – alone – and we'll have a most pleasant conversation. Then, on to dinner; I've already spent the last few hours preparing a sumptuous feast of human delicacies. Following that, well, let me just say that I don't think it's the sort of thing decent folk will talk about over a comm channel. Needless to say, the pleasure shall be in the discovery. Mmm...yes!"
Joker glanced up at him. "You really know how to pick up crazy chicks, commander."
EDI's scans confirmed that admiral Xen's threats were anything but empty. "Scans indicate the six warships are equipped with numerous mass accelerator and directed energy weapons. It is unlikely we would survive a direct confrontation."
"Damn it, EDI! Never told me the odds!" Joker growled, slamming his fist on the armrest of his chair.
"And I must warn you, commander," Xen continued, "that I do not want to see any sign or trace of Rael'Zorah's daughter, whom you no doubt have hidden away somewhere on that ship of yours. Given here her highly disreputable service record and her tendency to become involved in reality-shattering events, I cannot afford to have her anywhere near us when we are in the middle of our...negotiations." The way she spoke that last word made Shepard shudder. "Now, I humbly request that follow our ship and dock with our lead research vessel. Allow me to state once more that any attempt to flee shall result in the immediate destruction of your vessel, and I would hate to lose such an impressive...specimen...such as yourself."
Joker spun his finger around his ear, indicating what he thought of admiral's Xen's mental state.
At that instant Shepard had an idea. "Listen, admiral, I know you research AIs, and I know you are experimenting on geth. So what if I told you that I had a geth on board that had 1,183 platforms running inside its head, and was capable of speech?"
The admiral did not answer for several seconds. "Are you attempting to deceive me, commander? That does not help our 'relationship'."
"No deception, admiral."
"Hmm, then I should very much like to see this 'talking geth' of yours. Be warned that if you attempt to arm the geth in any way I shall be forced to destroy you, naturally. You understand that I am almost certain that the thought of doing so is running through your head this very instant. No doubt you are thinking up some plan of escape, but not to worry. In but a short while you will not want to escape; it will be the very last thing on your mind...oh yes..."
With that Xen closed the comm channel. "It seems we don't have any choice," Shepard said, clenching his fists. "Follow them in, Joker, and maybe see about getting me some pepper spray. Although I guess admiral Xen's helmet would render that rather useless."
"So what are you planning, then? I'm...uh...guessing you have no intention of letting admiral Xen get her hands on you, am I right? I mean, Tali would probably get mad and all that...unless you wanted both of them to get their hands on you. At the same time."
"All right, all right, just because we're in a sticky situation doesn't mean we can't inject a little humour into things!"
He ignored his remarks. "With any luck I'll be able to improvise. Legion's a geth; he can hack through pretty much anything. Maybe he can hack their security system or their defences."
The Normandy followed the half-dozen ships the main research vessel, one of three small ships orbiting Eta Carinae at an extreme distance, and even this was about as close as one could get to the star with suffering damage from the star's staggering energy output. The star provided all the energy that the ships needed through an array of solar panels; their main reactors were not even in use, freeing them from the requirement of having to be regularly refuelled. There was even a ship mostly given over to hydroponics, so that the research base did not have to ship food in from the rest of the flotilla, ensuring that it remained a secret.
"EDI," said Shepard, "send Legion up here, and make sure he...it...is unarmed."
As Joker manoeuvred the ship into docking position, a number of lights appeared on the cockpit's holographic display, and a shrill alarm sounded. "They've got us lit up like a Christmas tree!" Joker exclaimed. "Every one of those ships has locked on to us."
"I guess this is admiral Xen's way of asking me out on a date. Just like that one date I went on way back when, where the girl's father decided to come along as a 'chaperone.' Too bad her father turned out to be a Blue Suns merc!"
"Like I said, commander, you know how to attract the crazy types."
Legion made his way up to the cockpit, making every crewman he passed by shudder quietly. By now everyone knew that they had a geth aboard, and while this particular geth had so far not gone on a killing spree, that did nothing to put anyone's mind at ease.
"Legion, we're in a rather...difficult...situation. The quarian admiral Daro'Xen wishes to meet me for some rather...unsavoury...activities. 'Hormonally-induced courtship behaviour,' as you might put it. Trouble is, I'd rather suffer a particularly nasty episode of explosive decompression than have anything to do with her."
Legion's head-light blinked, indicating thought, perhaps? Or confusion. "Creator Daro'Xen will fail. Her operating system is incompatible with yours."
"I don't think that's going to deter her. But that's where you come in. She researches AI, see, and she's agreed to let you accompany me under the pretence that she'll be allowed to 'study' you. Maybe you can hack their security systems or their ship's computer. Anything to keep that woman's hands off me. If you succeed in hacking their systems, signal me by nodding your head, or in some other way that she won't recognise."
The Normandy shuddered as it docked with the lead research vessel. The quarians had not even bothered to update the ship's name in the registry; it was still called the Tampere, the same name as when the ship had belonged to Arcturus Geoscience Inc. "EDI, see if you can hack through their firewalls, preferably in a way that's discreet. Admiral Xen is clearly mentally unstable; there's no telling what she'll do if we piss her off."
"Angry sex," Joker quipped. "Hot, angry sex."
Shepard and Legion stood in the airlock while the pressure between the two ships was equalised. How do I get myself into these sorts of situations, anyway? he thought to himself. All he could think about was how much better his time would be spent preparing for the Omega-4 mission instead of dealing with some lust-crazed quarian admiral.
The airlock doors opened, revealing a sterile, grey hallway, the walls still bearing the logo of Arcturus Geoscience Inc. No sooner had he stepped aboard than the Tampere's airlock doors slammed shut behind him. "Welcome aboard, commander," came the admiral's voice from down the hall. When Daro'Xen rounded the corner, Shepard was shocked to see a pair of geth flanking her, each one armed with what he immediately identified as the Hahne-Kedar CFX-104 "Megahurt" combat shotgun, recently recalled due to a calibration error in the mass accelerator firmware that resulted in the shotgun having a 0.00045% chance of launching the projectile directly at the operator's groin.
"Don't be alarmed by the geth, commander, they are fully under my control. Such is the fruit of my labour; complete control over the geth using the power of an organic consciousness linked directly to the geth's neural net. At the moment we only have a few dozen platforms under our control, but that number will increase exponentially in the near future, I am sure."
He crossed his arms. "I've seen your experiments. I should have you know that Cerberus would no doubt approve highly of what you're doing. Not exactly the sort of praise a quarian admiral would want to hear, is it?"
She ignored him and focused on Legion. "And this is the geth you mentioned." Daro'Xen began looking it over, not appearing too impressed with it. "'Tis not all that different from any other geth platform I've seen, except for this gaping hole, here. Is this the result of damage in combat, or has Tali'Zorah been 'experimenting' on it?"
Legion answered for him. "This platform is not available for experimentation."
The admiral stepped back. "It speaks! Yes...the increased number of runtimes would no doubt increase its processing capacity to the point where basic sentience is achieved. Oh, how I would love to open it up and see how the geth have evolved."
"Creator Daro'Xen's operating system is unstable. It desires to engage in mating behaviour with an incompatible species."
"'Tis not a very tactful geth, is it? But it does speak the truth, commander. Perhaps we could discuss this unique geth platform another time and instead talk about our impending...union?"
Shepard began cracking his knuckles. "I'd rather talk about your impending beating."
This remark appeared to shock her. "Oh, commander, I understand that you may be feeling rather put-upon giving the circumstances of our meeting, but surely you would never hit a lady, would you?"
"There's a certain reporter from Westerlund News who'd dispute that claim."
"Now don't be stubborn, commander! We both know that we belong together, I just happen to have come to terms with that fact, while you are still in denial. You won't have any choice in the matter, because soon...very soon...you will not be able to keep your hands off me. Then you will wonder why you even resisted in the first place."
As usual, he was not buying it. "Look, I don't know what sort of drugs you're on, or what medication you're not on, but keep your hands to yourself and I won't be forced to thrash you. That helmet of yours might keep me from hitting you in the face, but I doubt the rest of your suit is that tough. You know, when Cerberus rebuilt me, they gave me the ability to punch you so hard I could probably shatter a good number of bones with a single blow."
"But why? Aren't you tired of all the violence in this galaxy? I think love is what we need more of, don't you agree?"
"Violence?" he thundered. "You're the one who's been experimenting on human prisoners! You're the one who came up with the harebrained idea of sticking Prazza's brain inside a goddamn geth prime! And whatever you've planned to do with the geth under your control will involve horrendous amounts of bloodshed, no doubt."
Upon hearing this, admiral Xen turned wrathful. "Don't you dare lecture me, Shepard! I don't bring you here to have you spew rubbish about things you know nothing about! Your species has a homeworld, a seat on the Council, and the respect of the galactic community, while what do we have? A homeworld we are exiled from, that's being pawed over by soulless machines? A crumbling fleet of ships, most of which rightly belong in a museum? Men, women, and children who go for months without seeing the faces of their friends and family?" She then began pacing about. "Don't you see? What I'm doing is what's important! This has value, this has lasting meaning! If what I do helps put the quarian race back on the homeworld, then no one will care about a few worthless prisoners I sacrificed! My work will let us take back our glory!"
While Daro'Xen was ranting, Legion was infiltrating the geth platforms that the admiral had under her control, engaging in the AI equivalent of attempting to convert the "apostate" geth away from their worship of the organic mind admiral Xen had connected them to. "And now look at what you've done!" Daro'Xen growled. "You've gotten me all angry, exactly the opposite mood I wanted to be in. I shall speak plainly: I want you in my quarters, and I want you to make love to me. For hours."
"Excuse me, what?"
She laughed. "I see, you are playing...what is the human expression? 'Hard to get?' Is that it?" At that point Legion nodded his head, indicating to Shepard that he had successfully regained control of the geth platforms.
"No," he said, slapping his forehead with his open palm. "In your case, I'm 'impossible to get.' Now, the first thing I'm going to do is shut down this little research operation of yours. Then I'm going to make sure the entire Migrant Fleet knows exactly what you've been up to, and I'll doubt they'll be pleased. Then I'll give a right sound thrashing, because you've been seriously pissing me off!"
"Oh? And how do you propose to do that? In case you haven't noticed, commander, you are at a distinct disadvantage here."
"Well, you know those geth standing next to you?"
"What about them?"
"They've just been hacked."
The two geth flanking Daro'Xen turned around and pointed their weapons at her. A few seconds later, a panicked voice spoke over the ship's intercom. "Admiral! The geth are no longer responding the control signals! They're breaking lose! Aaaaaagghhh..."
Shepard grinned. "You see admiral, the great thing about having over a thousand runtimes running inside this geth is that he can use them to overwhelm any firewall. Hell, he could probably hack your suit computer and cut off your oxygen supply. And that's not the only trick I've got up my sleeve. Our ship has an AI, and she can hack her way into this ship's systems. She could activate its self-destruct mechanism, or delete the memory banks, destroying your precious research. I might even have her send this ship plummeting into the star, just because you've really pissed me off! So now it's just the two of us, and how well do you think you'd fare in a straight-up fight? I wonder if quarian admirals receive something comparable to the hand-to-hand training we N7 operatives receive?"
She did not move or speak for a few seconds. "You mean to say that...that you feel nothing for me?" Her tone was one of genuine distress and heartache.
He rolled his eyes. "Of course I don't! I don't even know you! You're just yet one more example of the sort of crazed individual that I keep running into over and over again, the sort of person I always end up having to kill."
"B...but how? How is this possible? I studied your psych reports, your service record, your biography, and it all said you would be extremely susceptible to quarian feminine charms! Could I have been wrong...? No, I couldn't have been! You should be hopelessly in love with me by now!" The realisation then dawned on her, and she clenched her fists in anger. "...unless another quarian woman got to you first! It's Rael's daughter, isn't it? I should have known that it was more than professional concern when you spoke on her behalf at her trial. Tell me, commander, what can she possibly offer you? She never displayed any interest in following her father's footsteps, content merely to indulge herself in matters of no real importance in the grand scheme of things, whereas I am an admiral, one of the most powerful individuals on the flotilla, and once the geth are under my control I shall be the most powerful individual in the entire galaxy!"
"Tali'Zorah has one advantage you lack, admiral. She's not batshit crazy."
"Bah! I am a woman, while she is but a girl! No doubt her childish infatuation with you will come to an end sooner or later. Not only that, I can show you pleasures that she will never be able to offer you!"
"All right, just shut up. I'm not interested in continuing this conversation. I'm going to purge this ship's memory banks, wipe every trace of your abominable 'research' from them, and then I'm going to go back to the Normandy and sending a message to the Migrant Fleet, telling them all about what you've done. I'll even tell them about your sick little infatuation with me; wonder how well that will go over?"
"Fine" she screamed, stamping her foot like a petulant child. "Then get off my ship, and take your little prize robot with you! Go crawling back to that filthy little hussy of yours!" She brought up her omni-tool and began furiously entering commands. "What's that human expression, Shepard? 'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned?' Well you're about to find out what that means! This ship has the last Perkele5000 mineral scanner left in the galaxy, and I've just fired it at the star! In a few minutes this sytem will be consumed in the largest explosion this galaxy has ever seen, if the data from Tali'Zorah's mission reports is accurate! I hope this was all worth it, you backstabbing son of a bitch!"
Admiral Xen turned and ran back into the ship, while Shepard returned to the airlock. Legion, having remained silent during most of the exchange between Shepard and admiral Xen, finally spoke up. "Organic mating runtimes contain significant numbers of programming errors. Recommending updating firmware."
"You don't say."
EDI had already managed to hack the Tampere's airlock controls, so Shepard and Legion hastily made their way back to the Normandy. "Joker! Disengage the docking clamps and get us the hell out of here! In a few minutes the star's going to-"
He was interrupted by Tali, panting for breath after having run up from engineering. "Shepard, I've got terrible news! The Normandy's scanners detected the emissions from a Perkele5000 mineral scanner! That's the same kind that Prazza accidentally caused a star to go supernova with!"
"I know. Admiral Xen did it in a fit of pique after I spurned her advances."
Tali stared at him, wondering if he were joking for all of half a second before realising that, yes, admiral Xen was that crazy. Nor was she at all surprised that this particular brand of insanity was happening around her, as she had long since come to terms with her status as some cosmic plaything.
As if to make the whole thing worse, EDI had to chime in as well. "Correction: the mass of Eta Carinae is sufficient for the explosion to be classified as a hypernova."
"Hypernova?" said Shepard.
"Like a supernova, but bigger."
"Oh, that's not good."
EDI wasn't finished. "It is probable that the explosion will result in the emission of 100 tredecillion joules of gamma ray radiation from the star's axis of rotation."
"And that's a lot, I take it?"
"That is ten with 44 zeroes after it."
"Then Joker, get this ship moving!"
But no sooner had he given these orders than one of the quarian ships let loose with a barrage of mass accelerator fire, specifically targeting the Normandy's engineering section. The barrage quickly overwhelmed their kinetic barriers, penetrating the hull and severing a major power conduit of the Normandy FTL drive. The blast rocked the ship, nearly throwing Shepard to the floor, and while a few lights flickered on and off there were no signs of any exploding consoles (the leading cause of death among Alliance crewmen), as Cerberus, in a rare display of competence, had elected to install circuit breakers on the Normandy.
EDI rattled off the systems that were now broken: "FTL drive offline. Power conduit rupture in sector 5B. Radiation alarm in engineering, evacuation order sounded."
Joker, who had faced certain death too many times before to be perturbed, simply shrugged and said, "Well, we're boned."
Outside, the quarian ships hurriedly flew off towards the mass relay. The energy pulse from the Perkele5000 mineral scanner reached Eta Carinae a few seconds later, and it was not long before the star's surface began to roil more furiously than it had prior. The ferocity of the nuclear reactions within its core meant that the star's own gravity was barely enough to hold it together, and thanks to the Perkele5000's energy pulse it would only be a short while before the star went nova.
"EDI, what about the ship's sublight drive? Is it still operative?"
"Affirmative, but a typical supernova results in the expulsion of stellar matter at a speed exceeding 30,000 kilometres per second. The Normandy's sublight propulsion system will not allow us to outrun the explosion."
"Can the FTL drive be repaired?"
"FTL drive power can be rerouted through a redundant power conduit, however, radiation levels inside the engineering compartment are rising rapidly. It is unlikely that any unshielded organics could survive for more than a few minutes."
"Don't we have any radiation suits?" Shepard asked.
"Radiation suits were not considered 'essential' by Cerberus command," EDI replied flatly.
He pounded his fist against a nearby bulkhead. "Goddamn it, Cerberus! Was bringing me back to life the only thing they did right?"
"I can do it, Shepard," said Tali. "My suit will protect me from the radiation long enough to reroute the power."
He glared at her. "'Long enough?' You mean you could die doing this?"
She didn't answer for a second. "Y...yes, but if someone doesn't get the FTL drive operational, we'll all die!"
Now Shepard was in the one situation every captain dreaded: the prospect of having to order his crew to their deaths. Hadn't Ashley reminded him of why the Alliance forbade fraternisation? Hadn't his instructor at the academy told him the exact same thing? "Listen," he'd said, "when the people around you are all fighting and dying pointlessly, who do you want your back? A comrade-in-arms, or some girl you dumped just two days before?" At that point someone had asked the instructor if fraternisation was acceptable with non-humans that they encountered during their tour of duty, and the instructor nearly lost it. "Gettin' busy with aliens is sick and wrong! Sick and wrong, I say! I swear, if I find any of you maggots with pictures of them blue-skinned tentacle-heads in your bunks then I will write my name in bruises on your ass!"
Then he had a realisation. "Legion could do it!" he said. "He's a geth; the radiation won't affect him!"
Tali, unsurprisingly, was not convinced. "I...I don't know Shepard; I don't think I can trust that thing with repairing the engines."
"I don't care," he growled, "I am not losing a crew member on account of some quarian admiral's insane lust! If I do, then she wins!"
Even Tali couldn't really argue against that.
"We will endeavour to work with the greatest efficiency, Shepard-Commander. The malfunctioning quarian admiral must not be allowed to succeed."
Legion moved with startling speed to the elevator, while Tali just shook her head. That her life and the life of everyone else on board the Normandy was now in the hands of geth was utterly intolerable. But at the same time, she knew that the true villain was admiral Xen, for putting them in this situation in the first place. Worse, the admiral was now in possession of both a device capable of causing stars to explode and a serious chip on her shoulder regarding Shepard.
Then, Eta Carinae exploded.
The light from the explosion would take several minutes to reach the Normandy, but were they able to see it, they would bear witness to one of the most energetic events in the Milky Way Galaxy's 12.6 billion year history. The star, exploding with the force of 100 supernovae, immediately became the brightest object in the galaxy. Two beams of gamma ray radiation shot out from the star's poles, powerful enough to annihilate all life on any planet that lay in their path. Several thousand years from now, the first beam of radiation would cause the destruction of a civilisation that would have one day created a pornographic magazine similar to Fornax, only this magazine would eventually publish a scene that would make the infamous "Forbidden Issue" of Fornax look like family-friendly fare, so their complete annihilation would result in the saving of billions of lives through the galaxy. The second beam of radiation would cause a series of mutations on a planet which would, tens of thousands of years hence, result in the evolution of a race of locust-like aliens that would seek to devour all life in the galaxy.
Down in engineering, Legion made his way to the damaged power conduit. The mass accelerator slug had ripped through the hull and severed the power conduit cleanly in two. As a result the entire engineering compartment was flooded with radiation, none of which affected Legion in the slightest. Those that had been in this part of the ship were presently in the med bay, seeking treatment for radiation exposure. Everyone, that is, except Jack, who had simply told the radiation to "fuck off," a request with which it had immediately complied.
The first task was to temporarily deactivate the drive core, reroute power, then reactivate the core, all the while a gigantic mass of stellar material was hurtling towards the ship at relativistic velocities. In less than a second Legion had downloaded a complete schematic of the Normandy (something that Tali would have a heart attack about, if she knew) and was already working far faster than any organic might have. EDI kept those up in the cockpit informed of Legion's progress, and Shepard could have sworn that EDI's tone of voice was that of someone trying very, very hard to make it seem as if she were not all impressed with the geth's skills.
Outside, they caught their first glimpse of the hypernova as the light from the event finally reached the Normandy. The star appeared to double, triple, then quadruple in size; a massive, ever-expanding ball of hot gas racing towards them at tens of thousands of kilometres per second. It steadily grew larger and larger, until it nearly filled the cockpit window.
"So, uh, commander," Joker said, "that admiral Xen was crazily in love with you, am I right?"
He sighed. "You know, the next time someone tells me that 'love is all you need,' I'm going to punch them in the nuts."
Down in engineering Legion continued to work at a superhuman pace, using his omni-tool to repair severed cabling and interconnects, and within a minute he was already working on reconnecting the backup power conduit to the FTL drive. But even this frantic pace of work seemed too slow for those up in the cockpit, who could only stare out the window at the swelling mass of stellar matter presently roaring towards them. If Shepard and the crew of the Normandy really were the galaxy's best hope against the Reapers, then it was entirely possible that admiral Xen would be responsible for the destruction of all sapient life in the Milky Way, for no other reason than she was a jilted, obsessed lover. Which, in Shepard's mind, was a damn poor reason for annihilating all intelligent life.
Legion was successful in re-routing power to the FTL drive, but the drive required at least a minute to be powered-up from a total powered-down state. Staring out the hot, fiery death racing towards them, Tali quietly grasped Shepard's hand and then, perhaps channelling Urdnot Wrex, said, "If I die here, I'm going to kill admiral Xen." Shepard's only thought was that, if he died this time, there was not a snowball's chance of hell of Cerberus bringing him back to life this time, at least not without the use of black magic and voodoo.
Suddenly, a green light flickered on the cockpit panel, indicating the FTL was now operational. Joker turned the ship around, just as the hypernova explosion, now appearing as an infinitely enormous wall of superheated stellar matter, was only seconds away from vaporising them.
"EDI, get us the hell out of here!"
The Normandy lurched as it jumped to FTL, as the restarting of the FTL drive had resulted in the drive core becoming ever so slightly out of calibration. Still, that was vastly preferable to being incinerated, and everyone on board breathed a sigh of relief.
At the exact same moment, the Collector fleet that had been under construction for the past two years entered the Eta Carinae system, determined to destroy the Normandy with overwhelming force and ensure that Shepard was finally killed for good. Instead, all they found was a enormous hypernova explosion racing towards them with no chance for them to escape.
"OH COME ON," Harbinger thundered, speaking through one of his drones on the bridge of the Collector "über Dreadnought." "WHAT ARE THE ODDS OF THIS? THIS IS JUST UNFAIR. I'LL GET YOU NEXT TIME, SHEPARD. NEXT TIME!" A second later the entire Collector fleet was vaporised in the explosion, destroying everyone of their ships save for the single cruiser they had left back at their base beyond the Omega-4 relay. And no one on the Normandy knew that they had all escaped certain death twice that day.
Of the quarian ships that had escaped the hypernova, Hvenna'Tor and his assistant Taedal had commandeered one of the smaller research vessels and was now making their way away from the Eta Carinae system as fast as their ship could possibly go. Both of them had no aim or desire beyond exacting vengeance on admiral Xen for destroying their research for no other reason than a fit of jealously. Neither of them could have guessed that the admiral's insane obsession with Shepard would have caused things to go so spectacularly and horribly wrong in every way things could possibly go wrong. For that reason they had copied all of their research data to the ship's computer, and with it they planned to restart their work anew.
"Un-bloody-believable," said Hvenna. "Our life's work rent to shivers because of love. And that damned woman got away with it! And she'll likely return to the flotilla with no one the wiser."
"We could always tell the admiralty board what she was up to," said Taedal flatly.
He scoffed at this. "And you think they will believe an exile? The admiralty board are fools who are too busy bickering amongst themselves to realise that one of their own is a madwoman. I would not be surprised if she is already back on the Moreh, carrying on as if nothing's happened. Bah!"
"Do you think Shepard managed to get away before the hypernova destroyed his ship?"
"I don't know, and I don't care. If he is alive, then he'll be far too busy with his mission to bother with us."
They said nothing to one another for several minutes. With the Eta Carinae mass relay inaccessible (and very likely destroyed in the hypernova explosion), they would have to use their ship's FTL drive to reach another system and use the relay there, something that would take several days, if not weeks. That would allow them time to decide how they would resume their research. They would need somewhere isolated – which would not prove difficult given the vastness of space – and they would need more geth platforms and human test subjects. Obtaining humans from batarian slavers presented little difficulty, but obtaining functional geth platforms was something else entirely.
"Hvenna," said Taedel after a few minutes of silence, "what does this large red button here on the control console do? The one labelled 'Awesome?'"
"I don't know; there was nothing mentioned of it in the Arcturus Geoscience ship operations manual. I can only assume that the shipbuilders installed it as some sort of joke."
His curiosity piqued, Taedel reached over and pushed the button. "Thank you for pushing the Awesome Button," the VI cheerfully informed them. "This ship will now self-destruct in three...two..."
Hvenna and Taedal glared at each other in mutual horror.
Back on the Normandy, Shepard, Tali, Garrus were sitting in the mess hall, taking a short but well-deserved break. They had escaped death at the hands of admiral Xen, and now they were heading right straight back towards death through the Omega-4 relay. Still, there was no reason why they couldn't have this one brief moment to relax and unwind. After facing down a lust-crazed quarian admiral, facing the enslaved insectoid servants of the Reapers sounded downright mundane.
"I can't believe a geth saved us," said Tali. "I...I never thought-"
"...and admiral Xen was stopped by one of the very same creatures she sought to enslave," Garrus added. "I always love it when the bad guys get taken down with irony."
"But it's not over yet," said Shepard. "Admiral Xen is still out there, and doubt she'll be stopping her research any time soon. And worse, she's got a mineral scanner in her hands that can make stars explode."
"So what are we going to do?" Tali asked.
"Our mission takes priority. When the Collectors are destroyed, and we're still alive, we'll track her down."
"I sent a message to Shala'Raan and Han'Gerrel, informing them of Daro'Xen's crimes. But it will be a claim made without evidence. I've also spoken with Kal'Reegar, and he says he's going to be dealing with admiral Xen 'personally'."
Garrus laughed. "We know she's rotten; who needs evidence? That's never stopped me before. And if I understand quarian law correctly, the worst thing that could happen to her is that she'll be exiled. That'll give her all the opportunity she needs to carry on with her sick 'research'."
Aethyta approached them with a round of drinks. "So Shepard," she said with a mocking grin, "word is that some sex-crazed quarian admiral tried to put the moves on you, and blew up a star when you told her to get the hell out. That about right?"
"Yes, pretty much."
"Ha! Never a dull moment with you, huh? I'll say this much – this is a lot more exciting than tending bar on Illium. Of course, I think you should have taken the admiral up on her offer; she sounds like she would have been a real demon between the sheets!"
"Thank you, but I prefer my women to be non-crazy."
She shrugged. "Sometimes, crazy is the best way to go."
"Crazy" was also the word anyone on board the Tampere would have used to describe admiral Xen at that point in time. She had ordered the ship's captain to hang back and wait for the hypernova explosion to destroy the Normandy, only to watch in horror as the Normandy escaped just seconds before being obliterated. When that happened, admiral Xen nearly had an apoplexy from sheer rage. She paced about in front of the ship's crew, who were sworn to secrecy in regards to the admiral's research project, but many of whom were contemplating insubordination when the admiral's clear insanity was made blindingly obvious.
"Shepard won't get away with this! He is nothing next to me, absolutely nothing! I cannot believe that anyone would have the gall, the sheer nerve to repudiate my advances! It's unthinkable! I'll destroy him! I'll destroy him and I'll destroy that brazen hussy, that disgrace of a quarian that's gotten her claws into him! I will!"
"Admiral," said one of the researchers, "please calm down."
"Calm down?" she howled. "Calm down? The love of my life, my soul mate, has just turned me away, and you expect me to calm down? Obviously you have never known true love, true passion, true desire! I ought to flush you out the nearest airlock right this second for suggesting something so patently ridiculous!"
Another researcher was brave enough to speak out against her. "Admiral, many of us are requesting that we be allowed to leave the project and return to our home ships. We no longer feel that this project is in the best interests of the quarian people."
"Leave?" she growled. "That is out of the question. You will be permitted to leave the project when I authorise it! When I authorise it!" She punctuated her statement by slamming her fist into a nearby control panel, narrowly avoiding hitting the Tampere's Awesome Button and destroying the ship. "No, this project shall start anew, even grander in scope than before. I still have all the project data stored on OSD backups; Shepard couldn't touch those! We'll start again, right where we left off. We will bring the geth to heel, and we will take back the homeworld. And when I finally track down Shepard, he'll wish he'd have died in that supernova!"
One of the Tampere's crewman rushed into the room, panting for breath. "Admiral! We've just received a message from one 'Kal'Reegar!'"
"One of the Migrant Fleet's grunts?" said Daro'Xen with derision. "Well, don't just stand there! What did he say? I don't care if he has received every single commendation the flotilla can offer; he will not stand against me!"
"Well, uh...that message consists only of four words..."
"And what were they? Come on, out with it!"
The crewman fidgeted. "'Do you want fury?'"
And when she heard those four words admiral Xen, in the deepest, darkest corner of her mind, was afraid...