For the third day in a row, the Normandy sat in hyperspace a few hundred meters from the Whitestar. Shepard stared at the holographic image, eyes flicking back and forth as she considered her options. Off to one side, Traynor smiled and tapped a button. "That's checkmate, Commander," she said.
Shepard studied the board for a moment longer before slumping against the railing. "I'd ask for best out of nine, but I think I'd best pick discretion for once." Shaking her head, she stared up the length of the ship at the pilot seat. "Is Joker bored out of his skull yet?"
"Joker is currently napping," EDI said. "Given the relaxed posture while waiting, I decided not to keep him awake with his recent insomnia."
Shepard and Traynor both exchanged a glance. "Why is Joker suffering from insomnia, EDI? I didn't think he was that out of sorts."
"I believe it is the aftereffect from our recent peace, Commander. Everyone on the ship has been operating largely on near-constant adrenaline highs. Vega and Cortez have also been having trouble adjusting, given the decrease in humorous content in their normal conversations. Javik has also been more irritable than normal, but that may be due to his temporary convalescence."
Wincing at the reminder, Shepard stepped down from the map. "If he hadn't almost caught a Mako with his face. Well. Whatever. I know all this sitting and waiting is actually what the Alliance designed the Normandy for, but it's starting to get old."
At one of the side stations, Lennier suddenly perked up, placing one hand over the small headset dangling from his bone crest. "Commander Shepard, the Whitestar is reporting they have found one of the Shadow vessels. They are moving to intercept."
"Finally! EDI, set General Quarters." Throughout the ship, every airtight door slid closed and sealed as a warning tone echoed from every speaker. "Tell them we're ready, just say the word. Westmooreland, man the stealth system."
The holograph blinked out, replaced with a tactical display showing the Whitestar and the shadow vessel as they closed towards each other, until the Shadow vessel suddenly jerked to a stop at a mere kilometer away. Everyone held their breath as the Whitestar blasted away, the beam damaging and finally piercing the Shadow.
"Commander, the Shadow vessel might have gotten off a distress call," Lennier said. "The Whitestar will not be able to return to hyperspace for several minutes."
"Don't worry, we've got their back. Joker, the moment a Shadow vessel shows up, take us in and blast them." One hand tightened on the railing. "Garrus, I want the Thanix ready."
"Hey, Commander? I'm detecting Shadow ships coming this way in hyperspace," Joker said. "Now what?"
A tiny tremor ran through her boots as the Thanix turret swiveled and aimed. "Shepard, I can hit possibly two ships before they can exit," the turian reported. "We can fire about every fifteen seconds if Joker can keep my firing arc open."
Fingers danced over her controls as Shepard designated another Shadow ship for missiles. They didn't have many, actually only enough for two full volleys, but damn if this didn't count as a good time to use them. Besides, Tali and Garrus could probably figure out how to build more missiles easier than they could construct new armor panels. "Fire at will, then drop out to normal space."
The hum of the beam echoed through the Normandy's hull as it slammed into the lead Shadow cruiser, then pierced through to carve half the spines off of the third one in line. The instant the beam cut off, four missiles shot away from the ship, arrowing towards the half dozen survivors. Before they exploded, the smaller Minbari ships had already dropped into real space, taking up posts near the Whitestar and waiting.
The Normandy emerged, ducking through the empty space several light-hours from the nearest planet. Three ships came through directly on her tail, while the other three followed the Minbari vessels, only to shudder and halt as the telepaths immobilized them. "Shep, this is going to be dicey!" Joker shouted. One red beam fractured on the shields, adding new scars to the damaged panels.
The Thanix fired again, blasting a jagged line across the bottom surface of one cruiser before breaking off. "Commander, two more ships are approaching through hyperspace," Lennier said.
"These guys really don't mess around," she muttered. "Load two more missiles and fire at that damaged one! Then engage the cloak."
Another red beam carved a line down the neck of the Normandy, visible as it nearly pierced the armored window over the bridge. Joker dropped them out of the criss-crossing lines of fire, as the two survivors drifted slightly further apart, hunting for the suddenly stealthed ship. Off to the other side, the Minbari ships concentrated their fire on the second of their three ships, aided by the Whitestar.
Below that tableau, two different jump points opened. From the first emerged another whole Shadow vessel, along with the damaged one. From the other, a Narn heavy cruiser shot out, plasma bolts firing in a steady burst to harry them away from the lighter ships. As the Normandy shifted and turned, one of the Shadow cruisers turned to flee, punctured by the blue-white beam at the last moment.
Between them, the rest of the Shadow ships were quickly destroyed, organic structures twisting and burning under assault of laser, plasma, and Thanix beams. "Shepard, I am making full scans of Shadow ships for future reference and study," EDI said. "I believe they are using minor amounts of eezo."
"Show me," Shepard said. The hologram blinked, replaced by a scan of one of the ships cut in half by the Thanix. Three spots were marked off with glowing lights. "Vega, Tali, suit up. Lennier, tell Sheridan we're making a quick trip on board."
"Commander, are you sure that is a wise decision? More ships may soon be inbound," he said.
"If they are using eezo, then we know there's at least some way to recharge our drive core. Sitting on the last two percent of our power isn't helping anyone." She stepped over the elevator. "Keep an eye on the sensors. If more of them show up, we'll cut and run."
"Look, N'Grath, I've been to five other 'merchants' today, and all of them said the same thing. Even the guys I know move weapons don't touch something like this." Garibaldi glared at the multifaceted eyes, not that he could really read the insectoid's body language. "Unless you want me to go tell the Vorlon you sold the weapon that someone used to try and kill him."
N'Grath shifted to one side as the human loomed closer. "Sell many things. Sell assassin weapons, not among them. But lots of people on Babylon 5 are extra nervous these days." One hooked foreclaw rubbed at the outside of a mandible, grooming. "Could have sold some self-defense items recently."
Restraining the urge to blow off a leg or two (after all, they'd regrow), he settled for resting one hand on his hip, conspicuously near his pistol. "Sold to who?"
"Can't remember all of them. But many Centauri, high ranking Centauri." N'Grath scuttled back another half a step. "Start there."
He took a moment to think it over. Certainly everyone had their suspicions about Londo, and he had been awfully chummy with Morden a few months back. But trying to assassinate a Vorlon was a whole other ball game. "I'll do that. But if I don't get answers I like, I'll be back here. Count on it." One finger poked at the hard chitin right between the eyes, knowing it would leave him disoriented just long enough to leave safely.
Outside the alien sector, Garibaldi hung the breathing mask back on the wall and set the flag for a tech to come replace the filters. "Garibaldi to Zack, how's those scans coming?"
It took several seconds before he got a reply. "They've got one more sensor to check, but so far, everything's good. We've gone over every inch of the system between Kosh's quarters and the command deck, and come up with nothing. Hate to say it, but this looks like a bust."
"We can't win them all. Thanks for checking." Brooding, he headed to the nearest bank of elevators, nodding distractedly to the two Narn patrolling. But why would Londo risk his neck trying to kill Kosh? And if it wasn't him, then who the hell was it?
Joker held them steady to the shattered half of the Shadow cruiser. Five meters away from the airlock, they could see the ruined interior. Even the inside resembled an insect hive, chambers with rounded edges put together in an asymmetrical pattern to fit beneath the thick hull. There were few jagged pieces from their shot, but mostly the portions directly exposed to their Thanix shot had shrank and twisted.
"Vega, leap for it," Shepard ordered. Scanning his landing zone, the burly marine took two steps back and launched his way across, landing easily on the far deck and bouncing across into the opposite wall. "Problems?"
"There's not enough metal in the hull for my boot magnets to hold me," he said. "No artificial grav, either." Standing on what had been the port side wall, he waved. "Seems safe enough, though." Drawing his beam rifle, the one based on Javik's personal weapon, he started examining the surfaces."
Tali jumped over next, landing far more gracefully and clambering over an unidentified piece of equipment. Shepard followed a moment later, leading with her shoulder and leaving a Shepard-sized dent in the wall. "Alright, we're in. EDI?"
"The largest location is approximately seven meters ship down, twelve meters starboard." Shepard pulled out her own beam rifle, and after a moment, turned it on the section of wall near her feet. A circular opening quickly shrank as she cauterized a new door. Chik'tikka went through first, the holographic drone shining a light around the abandoned chamber before they followed it through. Three more walls were burned through before they found their objective.
"I've never seen anything like this, Shepard. It looks like some kind of centralized gravity projector." Tali's omni-tool was already producing one tool after another as she tore the thing to pieces, snapping holos of each component before it was tossed aside. "It wouldn't work on the Normandy, unless you want gravity to flip between the subdeck and the rest of engineering. But I bet the Rachni or the Geth could make good use of this design."
"Bet the Alliance could too," Vega said. "Slap one of those on as a warhead, hit a ship with a massive gravity wave."
Shepard looked around the room. "So, then why don't the Shadows do something like that? The crash course we got on hyperspace says it distorts around large gravity wells."
"Got me." Vega twitched, weapon and light shining around the room again. "Do you guys feel that too?"
"Like there's something here, breathing down our necks." His beam of light swept over their chamber again, then up towards the hole they had dropped through. "Like, I dunno, the ship is alive."
Shepard and Tali exchanged a nervous glance. "Last time I felt like that, it was around Mnemosyne," Shepard said. "On board the derelict Reaper. But this ship doesn't feel like it."
"Maybe not to you," Vega muttered. "We done yet?"
Grunting, Tali clipped a folding container to her back. "I think we picked up two or three kilos of eezo. Hardly enough, but they are using it."
"Normandy to Shepard. We have Shadows inbound," Joker said. "ETA three minutes."
"We're coming, Joker. Vega, watch our rear." Leaving the ship was almost as easy as entering, in near zero gravity, and by the time the second wave of Shadow vessels arrived, the Normandy had followed the Whitestar into hyperspace.
As Shepard stepped back into CIC, Lennier rose from his seat. "Commander, Captain Sheridan would like to know if you were successful."
She leaned against the railing in front of the map. "Depends. What we acquired will increase our drive core by a whole half a percent, so in the sense of improving our short-term combat ability, no. But we did confirm that the Shadows do use some technology similar to ours, and if they can harvest eezo then we can too, so that will improve things for us in the long term." Holding up one hand, she wobbled it back and forth. "Let's call it a draw."
"Any success, no matter how small, can be built upon," he said calmly. "Let me know if there is anything else we can do to assist you."
"Actually, are there any uninhabited planets close to Babylon 5, that haven't been thoroughly scanned and mined?" Shepard tapped on the railing. "We have a couple of robo-mining probes. Not enough to be super impressive, but enough that we might be able to at least start repairing our ship."
"I will have a clerk compile a list."
In the outskirts of Omaha, Nebraska, Zaeed Massani sat on a dented crate in the basement of what had either been an apartment building or an office. He could see the charred sign of the Omaga Steak Company through cracks in the building above him, and the fractured ceiling did a better job of dispersing the thin stream of smoke from his fire.
Keeping one ear open, he clipped the grenade in his left hand back onto his belt, and pulled the piece of aircar door off the glowing coals before blowing on his fingers. Improvising the plate hadn't been difficult, but he did hope he wouldn't need to kill another indoctrinated soldier with this one. Giving it a moment to cool, he picked up the now cooked rat and took a determined bite off the hind leg. Still better than batarian MREs, he thought.
Something rattled in the rubble above his head, and his right hand brought up his new assault rifle. He'd thought about naming it the Legion, since he picked it up off a dead geth, only half-transformed as something in the energy beam killed it. There'd been a number of those, over the last three weeks, as he fled across North America.
The noise repeated, and his finger slipped inside the trigger guard. The roast meat slid tastelessly down his throat as he set it down silently. He wanted to stand up, to skulk closer to the entrance, but he'd been sitting down for the last hour, and if he moved now, his knee would pop. No way of knowing if that would be loud enough for whoever was outside to hear.
"Zaeed? You out here?" He could barely hear the speaker. "Damn, this is the seventh building. If I don't find him soon the Indoctrinated will be back outside. Then how the hell are we supposed to meet? After the way things went in Cleveland, he probably won't send me another message."
"Jacob, shut your goddamn mouth," Zaeed said. The footsteps above froze for a moment. "South, four meters, behind the delivery van."
Picking back up his meal, he listened to the quiet rasp and crackle of the rubble under Jacob's boots. Finally, he emerged through the cracked doorway. "Took you goddamn long enough. Thought you bought it in Cleveland, but you found the drop at least." Ripping off the rest of the hind leg, he held out the rat. "Hungry?"
Looking a little green, Jacob shook his head, pulling a couple of small apples out of one cargo pocket. "I'll manage, thanks. What about Pittsburg?"
"Found Samara. Poor bitch got it from the Reapers. Banshee ripped her guts out. Hope it wasn't someone she knew." He set down his gun and picked up his canteen, taking a swig. "What about you?"
"Alenko got separated when we were leaving DC. Haven't seen or heard anything from him. The oceans are firmly under Indoctrinated control, so no chance of us meeting up with Anderson or Shepard, assuming they're still on planet." Jacob tossed one stripped core onto the coals, listening to it sizzle. "Miranda was off planet, don't know where. Grunt and Wrex were also in London. Hell, everyone else was either in London or in another system."
"What about your wife? Doctor what's-her-name?"
Jacob stared down at the coals. "Last I knew, she was working on the Crucible. Either she's with what's left of the fleet, or she's dead." He shrugged, tossing the other apple up and down in his hand before putting it back in his pocket. "Either way, doesn't matter. We need something fast and agile that will get us out of here."
"And go where, hotshot? Those turned Reapers control more than half the goddamn planet. They can still fly through goddamn space, so unless they've all dropped in for a quick swim, getting off planet doesn't get us to safety." Turning his head, Zaeed spat a piece of bone towards the far corner. "And soon as the sun comes up, the Indoctrinated will be back out there."
"Really? Lone survivor Massani has managed to get through everything the Terminus could throw at him for twenty years, now he's going to give up and die in a bombed-out basement?" Jacob snorted, finally sitting down on the broken concrete. "Man, I guess now I really have seen everything."
Lurching to his feet, and trying to ignore the pain as his knees and hips popped, Zaeed pointed an angry finger at his companion. "Listen to me you little shit, I am going to live through this too. Fuck the goddamn Reapers, and fuck you too."
"Fine, so if we're not going to get a ship, what the hell are we going to do?"
Silence filled their bunker for the moment. "Vegas. If we leave tomorrow, we can swing south, circle through Mexico. All kinds of rich bastards were in Vegas, and they usually have good ships. If there's a worthwhile one, we'll take it. If not, I know some people who were near there in the desert, we can take shelter at their place."
"Alright. Sounds like a plan. Leave tomorrow after sundown then?" Jacob looked up at the ceiling, where the sky was just starting to brighten.
"Yeah. Pull up a spot of floor, and if something explodes, start shooting." Pulling the grenade back off his belt, Zaeed headed partway up the stairs.