A/N: Well hello there, people! Long time no see. For those of you wondering where I've been, it's a long story. Anyway, I'm a big fan of Mass Effect, and this plot bunny demanded to be written. Probably won't continue it, but if someone wants to adopt it, I'm all ears.
If you haven't played Mass Effect (1 or 2) yet, then go and do it, now. They're amazing games.
Hope you enjoy, and please review!
Adrift in a Sea of Stars
Chapter 1: Highly Unlikely Scenarios
"All stations secure for transit. Approaching relay in five."
Shepard had long since adjusted to the procedure—growing up on ships most of his life made it as normal to him as brushing his teeth. He didn't even need to abandon his train of thought as he grabbed the nearest rail. "—and I expect you to forgo biotics for this wrestling match. No matter how tempted you get."
Liara was about to reply when the ship lurched slightly, her whole body tingling and feeling lighter than usual, but only for an instant. She noticed that he finished his sentence less than half a second before the jump—he must have practiced this timing many times during his childhood. Regaining her composure, she released her grip on the handrail.
"You told me to wear heavy armor—few biotic adepts would ever do so. It interferes with our abilities. It is also inflexible." She knew he had a reason. Nearly everything about his training always did. Usually, she enjoyed trying to guess as to what it was, but this time, she simply couldn't fathom it.
Lifting an eyebrow and slightly smiling—a quirk she had always enjoyed about him—Shepard spoke as if gently pointing out an obviously failed spot check. "Think outside the box on this one, Liara."
She furrowed her "brows" in frustrated thought. Humans were quick to point out that they had a knack for "thinking outside the box." Even after the metaphor was explained to her, Liara still didn't understand how such a concept could be measured consistently across an entire species. She tried to rack her brain for the answer she had somehow overlooked. Very few adepts wore heavy armor, as it interfered with their highly trained and refined movements and mentalities that were vital to apex biotic performance.
"You never know when you'll be thrown into a highly unlikely situation," he explained after several moments of silence. "I can't prepare you for all of them, but I can help you understand how to adapt as quickly and effectively as possible. Scenarios like these help you learn to think in new ways."
"Head for the elevator," he continued. "I'll catch up; I need to talk to Ash for a moment."
A quick nod was her reply as she walked towards the lift. She wanted to laugh; she wouldn't have guessed that line of reasoning in a hundred years. Maybe the humans aren't incorrect about that knack, after al—
There was no warning over the intercom this time. She was flung sideways, straight off her feet, into the nearest wall. Even through the sudden, sharp maneuvering, she could tell something else was amiss, as a horrifying noise—something between a screech and metal tearing—ripped through the ship.
Jeff "Joker" Moreau wasn't known for being serious and disciplined. In fact, some of the crew commented that he seemed like the guy who tried to do as little work as possible, if only he wasn't stuck in the pilot's chair all the time. When Shepard heard those conversations, he would laugh as he walked off to who-knows-where, leaving the gossiping crew bemused.
He knew. One look at his file, Jeff mused, and the Commander understood that no one with a serious disability like his could prove to be an ace pilot, both inside the academy and out, with anything short of unparalleled determination and focus. Shepard never once looked down on him, not even on their first day together. In fact, he joked right back, offered advice while still conveying his respect of the pilot's abilities alongside.
One of the first bits of advice he gave was to prepare for the unexpected and not hesitate to react strongly if the situation called for it. Simple, and nothing he hadn't heard before, but the way he said it made all the difference. "I'm not shitting you," he had said, "you're the pilot of this ship. We're going up against a fleet and a dreadnaught capable of landing on a planet. A few seconds of you not giving the possibility of a threat your fullest respect will get us all killed."
As soon as the ensign said that the unknown ship had changed to an intercept course with the Normandy, he knew Shepard had been absolutely right. An intercept course meant that it had detected them and pinpointed their position. Worse, it meant that they had their spinal cannon pointed right at the Normandy.
He didn't hesitate. He didn't take the time to warn anyone or to wait for confirmation. Running his hands across the controls with long-honed precision and the grace of a master, Jeff jerked the Normandy into a high-powered burn straight towards the nearby planet, Alchera. He wouldn't be the first pilot to use a planet's magnetic field, gravity well, gases, and temperature to confuse an enemy's sensors and gunnery.
And not a moment too soon. Sensors indicated that the outer layer of the dorsal hull was just…gone. Jeff grit his teeth, bringing the ship into another evasive maneuver. The high-speed entry into the atmosphere was extremely risky—the hull and delicate systems could be melted, especially with so much of it gone. But Alchera had a thin atmosphere; he'd rather risk a crash landing here than getting ripped to shreds by whatever was out there.
When no further attack occurred, Joker brought the frigate into a more normal descent, gave a cursory glance to make sure that the hull integrity was acceptable, and keyed the intercom. Only now had he realized his hands had been shaking slightly. "Sorry about that, everyone! We're under attack! Commander, I need you up here ASAP!"
Such violent maneuvering, without any warning, was dangerous to the crew. If he was lucky, none of them had suffered any permanent injury. If he wasn't…he didn't even want to think about it.
Gunny Elison had once told Shepard that pain was often a good thing. At the time, he had imagined a rather witty retort that Elison should have had to say that after going through his own training regimen.
Now, however, he could not find truer words. Amidst the disorientation and shock was a hell of a lot of pain. He knew he was alive, for starters. Stubborn as he was, he decided that that would be good enough to get moving.
"Sorry about that, everyone! We're under attack!"
No shit, the smart-ass part of him thought.
"Commander, I need you up here ASAP!" He went straight for the cockpit, maneuvering past the injured and dazed crewmen as he combatted his own dizziness. As much as it hurt to see such a scene, he was needed above, now. He shoved his helmet on, engaged the seal, and moved forward.
As his senses cleared, he could tell that they were still moving, though not smoothly enough to still be in space. Emergency lighting lined the floor of the CIC; the ceiling was completely devoid of working lights. "Sitrep!" he shouted, reaching the cockpit after what seemed far too long. Pressley was on the floor, but moving.
"We're flying in atmosphere. Most of the dorsal hull was sheered off by whatever attacked us. Hull integrity is probably shot to hell right now, but we're still flying. Our evasive maneuvers brought us into a fast atmo-entry; any systems with critical components on the top of the ship are trashed. Multiple systems overloaded, some offline. Best I can tell, whatever ship attacked us can't track us down here, but we can't stay here for long. Nowhere safe to land, weather conditions too unstable anyway. Fuel aside, what's left of the dorsal hull won't last long. As for the rest, you're going to have to ask Engineering."
Scanning the damage report diagrams rapidly, Shepard came up with a course of action. "We'll need to get everyone aft of the cockpit into the Crew Deck. Steady as she goes, Joker!" Engaging the plasma screen built to keep the cockpit crew safe in case of depressurization of the CIC, he moved aft, getting everyone on their feet and moving them down below.
It took longer than he would have liked, but with the danger of the CIC losing atmosphere, he had no choice. Making his way back to Joker, he keyed the intercom for Engineering. Unsurprisingly, Tali was the first to answer.
"Fortunately, hull integrity is doing well, all things considered," she said, her accent thick in times of stress, "we're not leaking atmosphere in the lower decks. I don't think we took any direct damage below the CIC, except for the main fuel line, which was cut off automatically to prevent us all from blowing up. Both of our main tanks are compromised. We're leaking fuel, and fast."
"Can we make a jump?"
"No. Several systems critical to powering and maintaining a jump were overloaded, and some of the power lines are fried. And that's just the damage I'm seeing at a glance."
"How long would it take you to get us ready for a jump?"
"If we weren't flying in atmosphere, and we weren't missing part of the ship, and if I could start repairs without risking blowing us all up? Half an hour, at best."
Wonderful. With the vital information sorted, he finally let some of the worry creep into his voice. "Is everyone okay down there?"
"We're all shaken up, but I don't think anyone is in serious danger," she said, professional even under extreme pressure.
He let out a small sigh of relief, but switched back to the command mentality. "Get to work on that fuel line. Top priority." He knew he was asking for the impossible, but right now that was better than nothing.
Shepard's mind raced for options. Without FTL, they didn't have a chance of escaping the enemy vessel. They certainly didn't have time to get off a distress beacon or a message of any kind. No one would bother even starting a search for a while. Escape pods would be easy to pick off, once found, but they'd have no way of knowing when it would be safe to activate the homing beacons. With a serious fuel leak, they couldn't keep flying in atmosphere for much longer. Landing was also out of the question; weather conditions were too rough and the ground was definitely not stable. Could he risk it, anyway?
"Tali, can we try a landing?"
"The ship wouldn't fall apart or anything, but the CO2 scrubbers were fried. We'd run out of air in a couple of hours, and life support isn't in good shape. The temperature could reach dangerously low levels, even inside the ship." Shepard noticed bitterness in her tone; he could understand that it probably felt like her home was falling apart.
"Roger that. Do your best about the fuel situation. Shepard out."
So, he surmised: running wasn't an option, and neither was hiding. That left one alternative.
"Ensign Lovell, did you get any readings from our attacker?"
"Affirmative." Despite being shaken and dazed, her voice was steady and her motions sharp. "It was big; at least cruiser-sized. Maybe larger. It was using an energy-based weapon; it bypassed our barriers entirely."
GARDIAN systems, or their equivalent, were likely present, the Commander mused. Still, a frigate was durable enough to withstand it for a time. With her JAVELIN torpedo armament, the Normandy had enough punch to disable a dreadnaught with well-placed shots. Electronic countermeasures (ECM) could give them a chance to get in close. "Joker, we're going on the offensive. Take us into low orbit and see if you can find where that ship is located. Dive back into atmosphere if need be. Arm JAVELINs and prep ECM."
"This is the Commander," Shepard said through the intercom. "We're in one piece for now, but we've got a whole lot of problems preventing us from staying in atmosphere. We can't run, and we can't hide, so we're going to fight. I want everyone capable of donning emergency rebreathers to do so now, and everyone else to get inside the medbay. Seal all doors and bulkheads. In two minutes, prepare for evasive maneuvers. We're sure as hell not going down without a fight."
"Target located!" Lovell announced. "Five and a half kilometers starboard! Heading two-three-seven by zero-nine-four!"
"I got it," Joker replied.
The Commander tensed as the ship accelerated to maximum velocity. He hated naval battles—there was little he could do compared to land-based engagements.
The unknown cruiser was closer than he anticipated—he guessed that they were searching for the frigate, never expecting their prey to come charging at them point-blank.
"Firing cannon!" The spinal cannon spit a heavy slug at the cruiser—but at something that size, they would need a very lucky shot to make a difference.
"Energy spike on enemy cruiser!" The mouth of the ship—a ship larger than most dreadnaughts, he now realized—glowed yellow, an eerie reminder of what they faced.
Shepard watched a bright yellow light streak past the Normandy's portside cameras—too close.
"They're firing again!"
This time, the laser went wide, missing by at least several dozen meters. Apparently, this weapon's accuracy severely worsened up close.
"One kilometer! Firing JAVELIN's!" The deck was shook by several noticeable thump-s as the torpedoes—each containing several perfectly timed mass-effect warheads, designed to create a violent mix of mass-raising and mass-lowering fields to literally shred the target to pieces—rocketed towards the dreadnaught. Joker veered the Normandy clear of a collision course, bringing the vessel about behind the mystery ship. He saw explosions riddle the alien dreadnaught—but it was still turning, engines definitely not disabled like he had hoped.
"Keep us on its stern!" Shepard ordered.
"We don't have enough fuel!" Joker countered. "That last burn took up most of it. We have enough for a quick max burn, but that's it. From there on, it's maneuvering thrusters only."
"We're out of JAVELIN torpedoes, Commander," Lovell gently informed. Suddenly, the display lit up and her expression changed. "Enemy ship on a pursuit course. It's accelerating…it hasn't overtaken us yet, but it probably will eventually."
Damn. The spinal cannon wasn't enough firepower to make a difference. And if the enemy had bombers or interceptors—as nearly all ships that size did—then they wouldn't have time to pray for a miracle. Traditional naval combat was completely out of the question. So he'd had to resort to creative tactics. A small smile played at his lips. "Joker, use the maneuvering thrusters to bring our bow to bear on the dreadnaught. When I give the order, return our bow to this heading and execute that last max burn. Oh, and send out a distress signal. Pressley, you have the deck."
When Shepard reached the Crew Deck, he shouldn't have been surprised when most of the crew turned to look at him, masks on, expecting some kind of direction and report. He wasn't surprised, though, to see Garrus, Ashley, and Liara, all in hardsuits and armed to the teeth.
"It seems we're in a bit of a hairy situation!" Shepard shouted, knowing the rest of the crew was listening in. "The enemy ship has taken a beating, but they can't take a hint. They think we need a miracle to get out of this fight alive, so we'll kindly oblige! We're going to give them a miracle…in the form of three kilotons of DIVINE INTERVENTION!"
Though she knew that he wouldn't see it behind her helmet, Ashley grinned. Motivating his crew against impossible odds was a skill he had honed into an art. It didn't hurt that she especially appreciated this joke, either.
After Virmire, Shepard had requisitioned for nukes, just in case. After the Battle of the Citadel, the Alliance came through. "Come with me to the cargo bay. Time to gift wrap the package."
Seeing the nods of agreement, Shepard could only bow his head in appreciation.
Stepping out of the lift, Liara's curiosity got the better of her. "How are we going to deliver the bombs?"
Shepard jerked his head over to the Mako. "With the most epic improvised weapon in history."
Ten minutes and several rolls of duct tape later, the bomb was ready. Tali even managed to rig a proximity sensor to the hull of the Mako. With luck, their timing would be good enough for the Normandy to survive the blast.
"Joker! Depressurize the cargo bay. Liara, stand by to give the Mako a push." Turning to the rest of his team, he continued, "magnetize boots. Double-check suit seals."
"Depressurizing cargo bay...stand by…opening cargo bay doors." As the ramp lowered, they were greeted with a sight both awe-inspiring and terrifying all in one.
Directly in front of them was the dreadnaught. Its flaming maw dominated their view, with Alchera's white glow giving the ship an ethereal glow. Most notably, unlike any other ship he'd seen, this one looked like it was built inside of a carved-out asteroid.
But it was completely, utterly silent, making it all the more surreal.
Pulling his eyes away from the view, he nudged Liara. "Ready?"
She nodded. "Tali, release the clamps," she said, her tone even and emotionless.
The asari glowed as a dark blue-ish purple aura eveloped her body. With a smooth, practiced motion, she thrust her palm forward, and the Mako followed suit.
"Now, Joker!" the Commander yelled, a slight bit of desperation audible in his voice.
The docking bay closed as the Normandy flipped away. After seeing Shepard hit the deck, the rest of the team followed suit just before the thrusters kicked into full.
The seconds ticked by excruciatingly slow. At any moment, the bombs would go off—and the Normandy might be taken along with the dreadnaught.
He didn't think. He just waited, almost on the verge of laughing at the ridiculous situation when the entire ship shook violently. Sparks flew, but the ship remained intact.
"Ship stabilized. No detected hull breaches on the Crew Deck or cargo bay. Engineering, report damages to Pressley. Oh, and Commander, I think we've reached a new level of crazy. I'm pretty sure molten lava and sulfur would be a cakewalk right about now."
Grunting, but smiling all the same, he launched a witty retort of his own. "You know me, Joker. I don't like to disappoint. Shepard out."
A/N: Well, what did you think? Like it? Please let me know!