A fiery sphere swept across the cockpit windows in a blue-shifted arc as Joker flung the Normandy wide around Ma-at's corona. The ship's hull and shielding could absorb an amazing amount of punishment from weapon fire, but no technology yet invented could best the power of a star. The course projected on the HUD spiraled around Ma-at and terminated in the shape of a fish hook at the geth hub. They'd have to approach the asteroid from its far side, using the rocky body as a shield flying in its shadow, or the Kodiak shuttle and boarding party would be cooked before it left the docking bay.
"Two minutes," Joker announced over the intercom.
"Standing by," Shepard replied from the shuttle.
"You ready for this, EDI?"
EDI's blue sphere pulsed brightly. "All systems are nominal. As a reminder, in such close proximity to a stellar body, our thermal dissipation systems will not be effective. We must keep maneuvering and weapon fire to a minimum."
"That might not be up to me." Joker didn't bother to look at any of the sensor displays. Until the ship dropped below sublight, he had to depend solely on the AI's mathematical projections on where the asteroid would be. Not long ago, he would have insisted on plotting the course himself, but now he couldn't be happier to have EDI at his side. As for what awaited the Normandy at Orbital Body 413319, they would find out together.
In the Kodiak's crew compartment, the nine remaining members of the squad sat in full vac armor, concentrating on the schematic in their visor displays and omnitools as Miranda talked.
"Our target will be on Xenophon's second deck," she said. "The ship's AI Lab. It's completely isolated, with its own suite of countermeasures to prevent an AI outbreak. Archer's research materials will be there."
Zaeed studied the schematic in his own heads-up display. "What's our entry?"
"Main hangar deck," Miranda said. "I've already got the override for the door fed into our transponder. We should be able to open it as we approach."
"You just got fired, didn't you? What if they changed the locks?"
Shepard rotated the three-dimensional deck plan in front of his eyes and marked a point on the bottom of the hull. "In that case, we go in here. Ventral emergency airlock. We'll be able to open outer door using the manual override, but we'll still have to blast through the inner hatch to breach the hangar. From there, it's the same plan."
He shifted the image to the second deck. The AI lab had a single door that opened to a corridor that ran across the center of the ship. "The quickest way up from the hangar deck are these access ladders on either side. We'll hit the closest one to us, leave a security element with the Kodiak, and the rest of us will take the lab."
Garrus looked up through the display in his eyepiece. "Opposition?"
Miranda spoke again. "Xenophon has a complement of thirty-one consisting of the flight crew and technicians, about as capable as our own crew. They'll put up a fight, but their main goal will be to defend the ship's control centers to prevent a takeover."
Kasumi shrugged. "Good. We're not trying to take the ship, right? Maybe we won't even see them."
Miranda shook her head. "Standard procedure on high-risk operations has three or four squads of assault troopers on board, led by Centurions. And they'll come straight to us."
"Fifty to sixty guns at least," Garrus said.
Kasumi's shoulders slumped. "Oh. That's a bummer."
Miranda nodded. "And at least as many down on the hub itself."
"We'll worry about them when we get there," Shepard said. "Garrus, you're in charge of the security element. Hold the bay, cover us out and back."
"Roger that," Garrus said and pulled up a schematic of Xenophon's docking bay, already plotting out positions.
"Miranda, Jacob? You know your way around a Cerberus ship better than any of us, so you're on assault. We're going to be hacking through hatches every step of the way, so Kasumi, you're with us. Legion and Tali will search the lab. Everybody whose name I didn't call is on security with Garrus."
Samara and Zaeed both nodded, but Grunt growled under his helmet.
"Don't worry," Garrus said, still studying the schematic. "We'll be plenty busy. I guarantee it."
"We'd better be," Grunt said.
"Dropping to sublight in ten seconds," Joker announced.
Shepard braced himself in his seat. "Get ready!"
"Stand by... Five, four, three, two, one..."
The entire squad slammed against their restraints. If not for the safety clamps securing them to the shuttle's benches, they would have smashed against the hull as powerful jolt flung them violently to the side.
Back under sublight, the Normandy's sensors and Joker's own eyes could finally make sense of their surroundings. The threat board came alive with active LIDARs emanating from dozens of ships and guided munitions from all directions.
"SHIT!" Joker Joker slewed the ship toward an open sector on the scan. Explosions flashed nearby as the Normandy's GARDIAN system came online.
"Joker," Shepard yelled over the comm. "What's happening?"
"We came out in the middle of a goddamn furball is what!"
Idents on the display resolved as EDI analyzed the ship's electromagnetic emissions, but the screen flickered and stuttered as Ma-at's supercharged particles clouded the display. Smaller Cerberus and quarian ships jockeyed for position, while the larger vessels tried to lock on one another at range in the middle of a solar maelstrom. Half of the contacts neither maneuvered or fired. Like the ships around Ammut, the geth vessels were inert, drifting in straight lines, making easy targets for the rampaging quarians.
Joker designated the closest targets. "Who do we shoot?"
"Forget 'em!" Shepard shouted over the comm. "Get to the hub!"
A single glance at the short range scan was all Joker needed. Like a slalom skier surveying a downhill run, the course around and through the minefield of ships became clear. He kicked the Normandy to full throttle as he brought the ship about and the cockpit flooded white as they faced the nearby star. In the midst of the inferno, filtered through polarizing screens and shielding, tiny a black dot showed amidst the brilliance.
"Jeff," EDI said, just as the entire ship shuddered from an impact. "A Cerberus vessel has locked on and is in pursuit."
"Great," Joker said. He had to keep the ship's course straight and true before releasing the Kodiak. While the Normandy's screens could survive Ma-at's fury, the Kodiak's defenses would collapse in a matter of seconds outside of the asteroid's shadow. "And we're showing nothing but ass, flying straight towards a star!"
"If we're lucky," EDI said, "We'll come out evenly cooked on all sides. That is a joke."
"Not now, EDI!" Joker wrenched the ship over and a cluster of disruptor torpedoes streaked past the window, and an alarm sounded indicating thermal load was accumulating to dangerous levels. Things were about to get very interesting.
Shepard clamped himself in the Kodiak's cockpit next to Rolston. The hangar deck whirled by outside the front window as the hangar's docking clamp spun the shuttle around 180 degrees to face the forward bay door. On the ship's tactical display, Normandy raced toward Orbital Body 413319 with a Cerberus frigate closing right behind it.
"Stand by to launch," Joker said. "Five seconds! Four... three... two..."
The forward bay door retracted. Even with with maximum filtration and protective screens, all Shepard and Rolston could see was a solid white rectangle with a dark circle rushing at them, framed by the door's opening. The docking clamp released with a clank as the shuttle's mass effect generators kicked in.
A surge of thrust shoved Shepard and Rolston back in their seats as the Kodiak blasted from the hangar into Ma-at's blinding fury. The dark circle ahead turned into a cannonball hurtling right at their faces.
"Brace!" Rolston shouted, giving everyone in the crew compartment a split second to prepare for the hammer of braking as the Kodiak's thrusters vectored forward in unison. Thanks to mass effect fields, g-forces that would have gelled their bones only strained their muscles. Leftover momentum swept them onward to the asteroid. Now eclipsed by the rock, Ma-at's corona blazed in all directions from the asteroid's ever-expanding dark side. Kilometer-long solar collection panels rimmed the asteroid's terminator like petals on a flower.
Above, a bright comet arced into space. It was the Normandy, screens ablaze in Ma-at's heliosphere, with a Cerberus frigate chasing close behind. Shepard once again watched his ship go into battle out him. "Any sign of the Xenophon?"
"Got a positive track," Rolston said. "Should be about two o'clock, low."
A pinpoint of light sparkled against the dark side where Rolston had indicated. Shepard matched it up with the shuttle's tactical display in his visor. "Got a visual."
A magnified image showed the Xenophon hovering just above the asteroid's surface. Like most human ships, the Cerberus vessel was a giant, blocky wedge, painted white with sensor and comm arrays extending from its hull like masts on an old time sailing ship. She was almost as long as Normandy, but not nearly as sleek. A wide, brightly lit opening stretched across its aft.
"The bay's open," Rolston shouted, "They're launching a shuttle!"
Sure enough, a small blip on the screen showed a contact departing the Xenophon for the surface. "Get us in there!" Shepard disengaged his safety clamps and wheeled through the cockpit door to plant himself in the closest seat in the crew compartment. Safety clamps re-engaged and the cockpit hatch sealed to protect Rolston from vacuum. "Ten seconds! We're going in the primary docking bay! Forward bench forward, aft bench to the aft!"
Through the shuttle's nose camera on their HUDs, the entire squad could see the approach to Xenophon's belly and its wide hanger, lined with smooth white walls that gleamed in bright overhead lights. Without warning, a marquee of red beacons glowed around the bay door as it slid shut from the top. Everyone in the crew compartment instinctively braced for impact.
"Hang on!" Rolston yelled and yawed the shuttle sideways as it hurtled through the closing bay door. It pitched, bounced once, then slid sideways across the deck on its belly as the hanger door slammed shut behind it.
A light over the Kodiak's hatch turned solid green and it opened facing the Xenophon's docking bay door. Shepard detached his safety clamps and propelled himself through and disappeared to the right with Jacob close behind. Tali clutched her shotgun and rushed after them, not daring to slow down because Legion and Miranda were right behind her.
A muffled alarm grew louder as the hangar re-pressurized and soon echoed throughout the bay. Tali knelt behind the two humans ahead of her. After peering around the Kodiak's forward thruster mount, Shepard marked their path on their tactical displays and checked over his shoulder to make sure everyone was present.
"We're in position," Garrus said over the radio. "You're clear forward!"
"Follow me!" Shepard charged toward the fore end of the hangar deck. Tali kept her eyes on Jacob's weapon-packed back in front of her as she ran, keeping her interval, all the time scanning for threats ahead while picking out good places for cover as they weaved amongst the crates and equipment on the deck. The sprint ended with the entire group lined up next to the hatch leading to the port stairs. Its panel glowed bright red.
Shepard stepped aside. "Kasumi!"
Omnitool out, Kasumi knelt in front of the panel while her friends kept watch over the hanger and elevator doors. "Drones up," Shepard said as the thief worked. Tali touched her omnitool and Chiktikka rezzed in next to her. Legion did the same, and soon two of the spherical drones hovered over Kasumi's shoulders. Seconds later, the door indicator flashed green. Kasumi moved aside as the door opened and remote drones zoomed through and up the sublevel stairway.
"Clear," Tali said, monitoring Chiktikka's progress in her visor.
"Affirmative," Legion confirmed.
Shepard and Jacob pushed through the hatch with Miranda, Kasumi, Tali and Legion right behind. Unlike Normandy, the sublevel walls and stairs were all polished white without a speck of grime. Their boots left a trail of black smudges as they ascended.
"Up one deck," Miranda said as they reached the first landing, "Then aft. The access ladder will be in the back of the corridor."
"Garrus," Shepard said. "We're on deck three on our way up to two. What's your status?"
"Contact," Garrus's voice was calm, as always. "Cerberus troopers just came down the elevator. I count twelve-" there was a burst of weapon fire, followed by a loud laugh that could only be Grunt. "check, eleven enemy targets. Shouldn't be a problem."
Weapons leveled at the top of the stairs, the team found themselves in a curved corridor leading forward and to starboard, both ways ending in a sealed hatch. Tali looked around as Shepard and Jacob each covered a door. There was no sign of a ladder, but she caught a ring of red light on the ceiling in the corner. "Here!"
"How do we get up there?" Jacob asked.
"The rungs are retracted," Kasumi said and ran her fingers over the wall, feeling for seams. She looked up. "They probably pull in flush when the hatch is locked. Fancy!"
"Can you open it?" Shepard asked.
"Psh." Kasumi sounded insulted. She waved her omnitool over the wall, opened a concealed panel and executed another sequence. The red ring in the ceiling turned green and the hexagonal hatch cover slid aside as glossy white rungs extended from the wall.
Tali checked the mission time on her HUD. They had been on the ship for just under two minutes now. Hopefully, Miranda had been correct when she said that the Cerberus personnel would concentrate on protecting engineering and the bridge. Getting in and out should be easy as long as they didn't know where the Normandy team was headed.
"Drones," Shepard said, and the pair of glowing spheres shot up through the hole to the second deck. "What have you got?"
"Corridor leading forward is clear," Tali said. "Two doors on the left are closed."
"Crew compartments," Miranda said. "They surround the second deck. They should be empty with the ship on alert."
Legion spoke as well. "The corridor terminates immediately to aft in a locked hatch."
"Let's go," Shepard said and hoisted himself up the ladder. Like everywhere else, the second deck's corridors were a spotless glossy white. A gold stripe ran the length of the walls at shoulder height, with a hexagonal black and gold Cerberus logo in the middle of the section. Shepard lead the column forward as the hallway jinked left then right, with each of them training a weapon on the door to a crew compartment as they passed, halting at another hatch at the end.
Beyond, according to Miranda's schematic, was the intersection with the central corridor connecting to the lab. The T-intersection was blocked in all directions by more hatches. To starboard was the central corridor. Ten meters long and narrow, it would be a death trap if they were caught in the middle.
Along with the rest of the squad, Shepard crouched low while Kasumi opened the first hatch, which revealed another hatch directly across and one immediately to the right. He looked at Tali and pointed to the forward hatch. "Can you seal that?"
Tali slipped around her friends and removed a panel from the wall. "On the Normandy I have to fix everything," She said as she began cross-connecting the door's circuitry. "Here I get to break them."
"Fun, isn't it?" Kasumi said as she worked the lock panel on the hatch leading to the lab.
Tali pulled back as a shower of sparks spewed from the wall. The holo panel on the forward hatch now blinked ERROR. She slid back around the corner next to Legion. "That should hold them," she said. "Especially since they'll have to fill out a maintenance request before they can fix it."
Miranda sighed and shook her head.
"Ready," Kasumi said, and Shepard waved her back around the corner. She knelt behind the wall behind Legion and pressed the execute button on her omni. The door slid open and the opposing wall exploded with a shockwave that made their kinetic barriers shimmer in unison. Sparks flew as enemy fire ripped into the portside wall.
"Um, contact," Kasumi said with a grin, pulling her Locust from its hardpoint on her armor.
Without prompting, Tali and Legion sent their combat drones zooming around the corner into a hail of rifle fire. Chiktikka recorded four Cerberus troopers in black armor at the far end. The two in front dropped to their knees to let the two behind fire over their shoulders. "Four in the corridor, opposite end!"
A blue glow enveloped Jacob's upper body and he flung his arm around the corner and pulled back. The Cerberus soldiers thrashed as they floated helplessly into the air until Miranda stepped around, aglow with biotic energy. The air around the floating soldiers rippled like water and the fron-tmost soldier disappeared in a flash that sent his comrades smashing into the ceiling and walls.
"Go!" Shepard yelled, and he and Legion stepped into the corridor and fired their rifles as they advanced even before the enemy troopers hit the floor. Tali ran along behind them, ready to clean up with her shotgun. Smoke filled the air and black streaks marred the polished white corridor.
Shepard pulled the corpse of one of the downed soldiers across the threshold of the forward hatch so he could close and waved Tali forward. "Seal the whole junction. Jacob?"
"Go back the way we came and watch the aft hatch. Make sure no one comes up behind us."
"Roger that." Jacob trotted back down the corridor past the thief, who knelt in front of the single hatch at the middle of the corridor.
"Kasumi, how are you coming?"
"Lab's unlocked," Kasumi said and waved them back. "Cerberus should really diversify their security systems."
Shepard jogged back to her. "Got enough practice the Normandy, did you?"
Kasumi put her hands on her hips. "Are you complaining? 'Cause it sounds like you're complaining."
"Garrus," Shepard called over the comm. "Status?"
"Another squad just came down the stairs you went up," Garrus said. "Port side. We are engaging. Watch yourselves."
"Roger that. Jacob you copy that?"
"On it, Shepard. Got eyes on the access hatch. Negative contact."
"Kasumi, go cover him. We'll be there in a minute."
"You got it, Shep."
The lab door opened to a large hexagonal room, shiny white like the corridors, its outer walls dominated by lab stations and consoles, all locked and under computer control. Geth platforms lay disassembled on the workbenches, with others clamped against upright against the walls. Several of the workbenches were shrouded with shiny metal tarps draped over ribbed hoses and cables that dangled from the sides, with the shape of a geth platform visible under each.
"Legion, Tali?" Shepard stepped to let the technicians work. They both had their omnitools out, scanning the stations, looking for a way to interface while he and Miranda secured the rest if the room. Shepard kept his rifle in hand as he examined one of the geth platforms. Its head drooped with no power to its systems. "Legion, these guys going to be a problem?"
"Negative," Legion said as it hurried around the workstations around the perimeter, looking for the ideal position to connect. It stopped and stripped a panel from the wall. "These are inoperable."
"This node's active," Tali said, planting herself in one of the black leather chairs in front of the consoles. "Legion, you in?"
"Affirmative," Legion said, manipulating its omnitool interface. "Scanning network..."
The two humans continued to search the compartment as the Normandy engineers worked. Miranda approached one of the covered work benches and peeled back the mylar blanket, her weapon level. She winced at what she saw, then glanced about to make sure neither Tali nor Legion were looking. She switched her comm to a private channel. "Shepard."
"What have you got?" Shepard moved behind her to look at what lay under the reflective sheet. Instead of a metallic head, he saw matted hair, pale skin, and vacant eyes. The quarian's helmet had been ripped from his envirosuit at the neck and cluster of the tubes was jammed down his throat. Electrodes jutted from bloody holes drilled through his forehead and scalp, connected by a bundle of cords to the tubes hanging over the side. A shallow pan beneath his head kept his blood, now thick and coagulated, from staining the table's clean surface. Mercifully, the man was dead. "Looks like Archer's up to his old tricks."
"No," Miranda said, glancing at the other covered tables. "This is for memory extraction. That's how they were able to decipher the quarian code so quickly. They ripped it directly from their minds." She lowered the blanket back over the corpse and resumed her search around the room.
Shepard wasn't surprised that Miranda knew what the apparatus was, but didn't want to know how she recognized it. He glanced over at Tali and Legion. There was no reason to disturb either of them with the gruesome discovery.
"Alert," Legion said. "Heretic virus code located. Commencing download."
"It's not going to affect you," Shepard said. "Right?"
"Our code base is not compatible, but we are isolating the virus from our execution paths as a precaution."
"Good job, Legion," Tali looked at Normandy's geth with admiration. It had bypassed the security put in place by Cerberus even before she'd broken through the second firewall. The lab had been secured against standard geth platforms, but its defenses were no match for a mobile platform like Legion. Had the humans on the ship captured Blue or Legion first, they would have paid a great price for tampering with machines they didn't truly understand.
Her omnitool chimed, signalling the delivery of the code via Legion's omnitool. She stared at the display, mouth agape. Native geth code scrawled across the screen. She had seen nothing like it, even during her direct interfaces with Legion. Simple and elegant, the master key to geth consensus now resided in her wrist computer. The power to control the geth was now literally in the palm of her hand. All she or Legion needed to do was upload it to a hub. But it would need to be altered first, as it was Xen's version, designed to return the geth to quarian control.
Where is the Fleet right now, Tali wondered? Was the Navy still massing at Dholen, waiting for word from Xen to strike? With the entire collective offline in a self-induced coma, had the quarians taken advantage of the opportunity to attack? If so, how long would they have before the geth woke up and fought back? Under attack from the entire Migrant Fleet navy, would the geth stop this time?
Shepard's voice from behind made Tali jump. "How much longer?"
"We've got it," Tali said.
Legion switched off its omnitool. "Confirmed, Shepard-Commander. We are in possession of the virus."
"Let's go!" Shepard strode toward the door, waving his team out.
"Wait," Miranda stood hunched over a desk, her eyes wide. "Shepard, come look at this."
Twin streaks of light erupted from Normandy's Javelin launchers, converging in pairs on the hull of the Cerberus frigate Apollo. Already overwhelmed by fire from the quarian ships and overheated from extended operation, the Apollo's GARDIAN could not keep up. The ship's upper hull crumpled like tin foil as spacetime itself alternately expanded and collapsed around the detonating warheads. It's fuselage kinked back on itself, then exploded as the eezo core breached containment.
"Great shot, EDI," Joker shouted and opened the ship's throttle wide, shooting the Normandy past the battle. While the quarian and Cerberus ships remained locked in a close dogfight, the Normandy was on neither offense or defense, free to make quick strafing runs through the battle and discharge heat before turning back around to make another run. While the quarians and Cerberus faced off with knives, Normandy kept jousting through, on occasion landing its a blow with a powerful lance.
"Thermal discharge complete," EDI announced. "H-cells charged to full capacity."
"I'm coming around again! Find us another target!"
EDI paused for a split second. "Stand by. I am detecting a change in the total number of active tracks maneuvering in the target area."
"What?" Joker pulled up the scanner. "We got inbounds?"
"No. I am detecting no additional traffic. The signals are from existing tracks."
"I don't see them. Who is it?"
"Jeff," EDI said, her voice calm, though if she were organic it would have been understandable if she screamed with abject panic. "The geth ships are reactivating."
"What is it?" Shepard, Tali and Legion converged on the Cerberus operative. The holo display in front of Miranda showed a series of different graphs and counters, all showing rapidly decreasing values.
Miranda shook her head. "This is geth network activity in the local hub. But these numbers don't make any sense."
"The runtimes have powered down," Tali said. "All of them."
"What do you mean?" Shepard leaned in to look at the screen. "Weren't they already shut down?"
"No, they were deadlocked, trying to block the Cerberus commands, but they were still online. Now they've all shut down."
Legion emitted a low buzz. "The entire hub is in the midst of a power cycle. This behavior is repeating throughout the collective."
"Keelah," Tali stood upright. "They're rebooting. When they come back online, they'll carry out their last instruction."
Shepard kept trying to make sense of the screen. "What do you mean?"
"They'll come after us. There's hundreds of platforms down there, Shepard! And thousands more at Ammut! We have to get there before they wake up! If we get caught in there after-"
Shepard didn't need to hear any more. He lead his team back into the corridor, hand pressed to the side of his head. "Garrus! We've got the package. Stand by, we're on our way back!"
"Roger that. You're clear down here, but we've got a problem. The hangar door is closed."
"Shit," Shepard looked back at the lab. "Legion, Tali? Can you override the door from here?"
"Negative, Shepard-Commander," Legion said. "The lab compartment is isolated from the other ship systems."
Tali sprinted past to where Kasumi and Jacob guarded the aft hatch. For some reason, her ship mates didn't seem to appreciate the danger they were facing. "We can do it from the hangar itself. Come on! We've got to go!"
Once again following the pair of combat drones, the squad dropped down to the deck below to the deserted stairway. "Friendlies coming in," Shepard shouted over the comm, making sure the tactical net showed their position as well. A half dozen bodies in Cerberus-issue combat armor lay at the bottom of the stairs leading to the hangar deck, the white deck and walls now spattered bright red.
Grunt stood over them, claymore in hand, covered with as much blood as the deck. They couldn't see his face beneath his helmet, but he sounded pleased with himself. "Shepard."
As much as he wanted to compliment the krogan on his work, Shepard rushed past him into the hangar. "Watch the stairs." At the far end, lying on the roof of the Kodiak, Garrus raised a fist into the air. Zaeed and Samara both watched from behind cover. "Spread out. Find that control panel."
"Right there," Miranda pointed to their right.
"Over here," Kasumi said, pointing to a small windowed room in the corner. By the time the others joined her, its door stood open. Beyond, the control stations all glowed red. She stepped aside to let Legion pass. "After you, sir."
"Stand by," Legion said, and after manipulating its omnitool, one of the panels turned green. "Accessing network..."
The Illusive Man paced back and forth in Anadius's red glow, his cigarette leaving a trail of smoke behind him. "How long, Doctor?"
Sweat beaded on Doctor Archer's forehead, visible even over the holo projection. "We're regaining control, albeit slowly. By forcing restarts, we've been able to eliminate the conflicting instructions. As they reboot, our altered code will take effect and we will regain control. Smaller clusters will recover first. I'm already getting responses back from many of the ships-"
"Seven or eight more minutes for this hub, longer for the larger ones at Ammut and Tikkun."
The Illusive Man turned back to the holo displaying the status of the small fleet sent to escort the Xenophon. Only three of the six ships remained. The quarians were fighting with a ferocity The Illusive Man had never seen. Without the geth to bolster their fleet, the Cerberus ships would not last much longer. "The quarians may break through before then. What can you do to expedite the process?"
"Anadius," said a new voice on the channel. Human, male, and frightened. "This is Xenophon!"
"What is it?"
"We've been boarded! At least a dozen of them! Sir- it's Shepard! He's on the ship! I don't know how... We're holding engineering and the bridge-"
The cigarette dropped from the Illusive Man's mouth as he rushed back to his chair. "The virus. He's going for the lab."
"What?" Archer scowled. "That's ridiculous. Even if he somehow managed to defeat my security, he couldn't do anything with the virus unless..."
"He delivers it to the hub," The Illusive Man finished Archer's sentence. He searched through his holo screen for the Xenophon's command console. "Captain Scott, you are to relocate the Xenophon immediately. Get as far away from the hub as you can."
"But sir," Scott said, "The only direction we can go leads us straight to the quarians. We're not equipped for combat! And if we leave the dark side we'll burn up-"
"You have your orders, Captain."
"What are you doing?" Archer said. "If we lose the Xenophon, we lose quantum entanglement communication! How will we-"
The Illusive Man didn't wait for the complete response. With Shepard on the Xenophon, there was only one way to prevent further interference. He opened the Xenophon's navigation console. "And you have yours, Doctor." With a single finger, he engaged the research ship's engines at full throttle without bothering to select a course. It would either crash into the asteroid, or be flung from the protective shelter of its shadow. The Xenophon would follow orders even if her captain did not.
"The bay door is open, Commander!" Rolston called from the Kodiak. True to the pilot's words, the shiny white door of the hangar retracted to reveal a black rectangle full of empty space.
"Atta way, Legion," Shepard said and called out to the squad. "Let's get to the hub. Move it!"
"Alert," Legion said. "We have intercepted errant control inputs being sent to the Xenophon's navigation system."
"What?" Shepard moved to stand behind Legion along with Tali and Miranda.
The geth projected what it was detecting over the workstation's main holo. "The Illusive Man is sending remote commands to the navigational console of this vessel. We believe he is attempting to destroy the ship. I am able to block the command, but it is repeating over an increasing number of threads. Stand by... stand by. Commands are now being sent to activate the ship's auto-destruct protocol."
"Well let's go!"
"Negative," Legion said. "We are blocking the commands. If we terminate our connection, the Xenophon will be destroyed."
"Commander, what's wrong?" Garrus asked.
"Stand by," Shepard said. He looked Legion. "Shut down the receiver."
"We are attempting to do so. Xenophon's countermeasures are defeating our attempts. We do not have enough runtimes to effectively counter all of them and maintain control over the helm at the same time."
"Kill the self destruct mechanism then. Or the drive core."
"The ship was designed to resist outbreaks," Miranda said. "It's in its design. The longer he stays connected, the stronger it will get."
"Tali, Kasumi, give him a hand!"
Both Tali and Kasumi stepped forward, their omnitools out and ready. But what took Legion a fraction of a second to do would take the organics much longer. Legion's flaps expanded and contracted as if it were generating consensus. "You must leave immediately, Shepard-Commander. You must implant the altered virus before the hub completes its power cycle. We will hold the Xenophon's position until you are clear."
Shepard stared at the geth, the full meaning of Legion's words finally registering. "We're not leaving you here."
"You have no choice."
"Shepard," Garrus said again. "What's the hold up?"
"Wait," Jacob shook his head. "We can't do that, Shepard. They'll tear him to pieces. And when they do, the ship will go too. And since he's unplugged from the collective, he won't archive."
"That's right," Kasumi said. "He'll die!"
Shepard turned to face the rest of the squad, who all looked at them from behind their face masks. "All of you get back to the shuttle. I'll stay here and cover him."
"What?" Tali said. "Wait, no!"
"Come back for us after you've delivered the updated code."
"No," Tali shook her head vigorously. "If you're staying, I'm staying, too."
Shepard grabbed her arm and led her toward the shuttle. "Tali, no! You're the only one other than Legion who knows how to reprogram the virus! Get out of here, now! All of you!"
Garrus spoke urgently over the tactical net. "What the hell is going on over there?"
The entire squad froze around the door to the control shack. Every one of them knew what staying behind meant. In front of the panel, Legion stood motionless, concentrating every one of its processes on preventing the Xenophon from destroying itself.