As the Normandy cruised over the surface of an uninhabitable planet designated with a string of letters and numbers, Shepard kept half an eye on the mineral scanner. Tali was already putting together some spares, with aid from Liara and Vega, but Shepard was hoping to spend as few of them as possible. It was so much easier a year ago, when she could just drop the probes and some Cerberus pocket company would show up a week later to claim the processed ore after she'd already onloaded her share from Omega, Illium, or the Citadel.
Now, they'd have to sit here for a little bit. Her lips twitched as she heard Traynor say something. "Sorry, what?" She backed up the scanner and grinned. "Jackpot!"
"Find an eezo stash, did you?" Traynor asked. "Sheridan is coming over on a shuttle to talk to you. Probably to leave us behind while they return to Babylon Five."
"Not a stash, but at least a couple hundred kilos. Half of that will bring the drive core up to a quarter, and Tali can use the rest to start building an armor plate factory." Shepard grinned and stretched. "I'll meet Sheridan downstairs."
She hummed along with the elevator music. So far, things were looking up, with a half dozen Shadow cruisers torn to bits, at least a partial supply of eezo, and Javik should even be walking around by the time they got back. She stepped out into the shuttle bay as the Minbari shuttle emerged through the energy shield and into their atmosphere. Vega and Cortez just barely managed to pull the last of the parts boxes out of the way before it settled to the deck.
"Commander, I came over to see how your supply searching was going," Sheridan said as he climbed down. Threading his way through piles of components, he gestured at the chaos. "What's all this for?"
"While we have the parts, Tali's getting more robo mining probes constructed," Shepard explained. "The only thing that would be difficult for us to buy are the electronics, but if I can find another high quality source of iridium, I can contract out a private job."
"That's good, good. There's a number of firms on Babylon Five that could do that for you, or you could try most of the species trading there." He glanced around the shuttle bay, paying special attention to the rack of weapons. "What about your drive? I'm afraid I didn't quite understand what the problem is, since you fueled up."
"I'm a sniper, not an engineer, but, hmm." Shepard took a moment to think about it as they got back in the elevator. "You ever played with a rubber band?"
"Lots of times."
"Well, think of eezo as a rubber band. You can only stretch it so hard or so often before it breaks, or wears out. At least, that was the analogy that got me through the Academy." Stepping out onto the CIC again, she gestured at the hologram. "I found one small but decent supply. I'm also going to have to figure out where Tali can set up a manufacturing plant."
"There's plenty of room on board the station," Sheridan started.
"Oh hell no. Alliance rules had armor manufacturing a minimum of ten kilometers away from populated areas. If we could build a full facility, we'd be generating in excess of two thousand earth-g force." Shepard grinned as his face whitened. "As it is, I don't think we'll be able to top five hundred, but still."
He nodded. "Point taken. Does it need to be planetside, or in vacuum?"
"Vacuum's easier, just because it's easier to ensure you don't have any unwanted chemical interaction, but aside from that, it doesn't matter." Her eyes narrowed slightly. "Did you have someplace in mind?"
"There's an area of space only a few hours from the station. You should be familiar with it, it's where we found you. Ever since Babylon Four vanished, it's been quarantined, and enough accidents have happened that almost everyone follows the quarantine zone."
Shepard frowned. "That doesn't sound especially safe for us, either."
"Nah, it'll be easy. I'll just ask the Council to expand the zone slightly, and both Delenn and G'Kar will vote with me. I don't think Londo will object, and Kosh probably won't even show up." Sheridan shrugged. "Your nav computers are up to date, right?"
"So I'm told. EDI?"
"I will work with Tali to identify the best area in the local space to construct the facility. We will need to wait until we can complete harvest of this planet before we will be capable of construction, and if possible, we should construct or purchase additional mechanized units. Either way, constructing replacement armor panels will be difficult and time-consuming."
"How time consuming are we talking about?" Shepard asked.
"Constructing a facility itself should take between fourteen and eighteen standard days, depending on the resources available. From there, we should be able to produce one new armor plate every forty-two point seven hours, including time for maintenance in that estimate." EDI paused for a moment. "Given those estimates, repairing the external damage to the Normandy will be complete in approximately two hundred four days."
"Well, that's a kick in the pants," Sheridan muttered. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Our limiting factor is eezo, and to a lesser degree knowledge," Shepard said glumly. "I can find more eezo, but then we'd have to be sure that teaching someone from your universe the ins and outs of that technology was the right thing to do."
"I know what Kosh said, but I still don't agree that any technology is inherently evil." Shaking his head, Sheridan started circling the galaxy map. "I mean, people said the same thing about atomic power, or the automated factory, even space travel."
"Well, I'll agree that he's biased. The only thing I got out of him before his buddy showed up was that some other ancient race used the same technology, before the Shadows." Her fingers drummed against the railing. "It's possible, though unlikely, that particular race didn't leave your galaxy, but your universe."
"You sound like you know something about them." Their gazes locked across the holographic planet below as windows scrolled updates about the unpacking robominers.
"I'm not sure. The Reapers were based on a race called the Leviathans. Given how old they claim to be, it's entirely possible they came to my universe from yours, and just lost that knowledge when most of them were harvested." Her arms spread. "But there's no way to know."
"There's one way. I go back and ask Kosh. He needs me running the station, so he's more likely to answer me than you." Firm in his decision, Sheridan's boots beat a strong pace back to the shuttle. "Just call the station when you're done with your mining, and I'll have someone drop by here to let you jump back into hyperspace."
"Thanks," Shepard replied. Leaning against the railing, she stared at the planet below, red surface glowing from the heat of the nearby sun. "Hope it works out for you," she said, but the elevator was already gone.
Vir Cotto was no stranger to being cornered. In the time he'd spent as the assistant to Londo, it was a regular occurrence. As often as once a week, he ended up in an elevator, or a transit car, or a corner of the Zocolo, usually with either an angry creditor, an angry Narn, or an angry member of the station staff. So when Garibaldi slipped through the elevator doors right before they closed, he just gave an internal sigh while putting on his best insincere smile.
Working with Londo had greatly improved that skill, though he still had some trouble maintaining it when things were thrown at his head. Like empty glasses or fists.
"So, Vir, how's it going?" Garibaldi asked. "Having a good week?"
Vir shrugged. "It hasn't been bad. Well, aside from the Narn last night outside my quarters." Keeping his smile up, he nodded politely. "Thanks for the prompt response, by the way."
"It's my job, making sure people on this station are safe. So everyone can go about their business, buying and selling, negotiating for things." Vir's heart sank further; Garibaldi was only this chatty with him when something had gone wrong. "It's a good job. I meet all kinds of people, and see lots of interesting things. Especially through the security camera feeds. Of course, the really interesting things are what I don't see."
"I'm not sure what point you're getting at, Mister Garibaldi," Vir said. He could tell his smile was getting a little strained; accusations might not hit as hard as a Narn fist, but they were a lot harder to dodge.
"Well, it's rather worrying, really. See, about two weeks ago, someone decided to take a shot outside Ambassador Kosh's quarters. I would have known this right away, since all the ambassador quarters have cameras, weapon sensors, that kind of thing." Garibaldi leaned easily against the wall as he talked, hands in his pockets.
Which, of course, kept his right hand easily close to his PPG. "Yes, I've endured many rants from Londo about the lack of privacy in the hallway."
"I'm sure you have. Of course, when we discover this by Captain Sheridan finding the blast mark, it tends to raise my blood pressure. I've spent the last two weeks tracking sensor ghosts and trying to find the feeds that didn't work. It took me a while, but eventually, I found it."
Knowing exactly where this was about to lead, Vir had no choice but to ask the expected question. "What did you find?" His smile had faded away almost completely by now, only a faint desperate quirk to one side of his mouth left.
"You. Or more specifically, your quarters. Where you passed, nearby cameras shut off. Of course, there was enough on the Zocolo to catch you walking past, and tracking the disturbance led me first to N'Grath, then back outside the alien quarter before you go back to Ambassador Kosh's quarters." Garibaldi's face was a mask of stone, or iron, certainly nothing as modern as ceramic alloys or glasteel polymers. "Want to tell me why you did it?"
"Alright, look, I did buy the gun, but it was for me, not for Kosh!" Vir paused, mouth hanging open. "I mean, for protection. I'd, ah, show you, but I really don't want you to shoot me."
One hand came up empty, the other pointing the PPG steadily at Vir's abdomen. "Easy," Garibaldi said. Keeping one hand above his head, Vir gently lifted the tail of his shirt and retrieved the tiny pistol, passing it over. "Protection? Outside Kosh's quarters."
"Oh no, that one was an accident," Vir insisted. "Just, you know, with all the Narn threats lately, and that whole incident with my prospective wife, you know."
"Uh-huh." The stone gaze of disapproval didn't budge a micrometer. "So what happened with this 'accident'?"
"Heh. Well, it started after I had just left the alien sector …"
Shaking hands patted his waistband, feeling the uncomfortable lump of the pistol for at least the dozenth time since he'd left N'Grath's place. Feeling somewhat justifiably paranoid – who could tell when another angry, drunken Narn would corner him next? – he paused at a corner, glancing around a corner, only to duck away hurriedly, touching every doorplate as he rushed down the hallway as quietly as possible.
One opened, and he all but leaped inside, grabbing the manual handle and holding the door open a crack before it could close behind him. The airlock was just barely visible, so he could see Morden enter it. Something went along with him, judging by how long it took the door to close, but the poor angle didn't let Vir see what it might be. The despicable man was both responsible for Londo's greatest success, and his worst nightmare. He reminded Vir far too much of every slimy, grasping politico back home on Centauri Prime.
"Ahem," a deep, bass voice said from behind him. Feeling his heart attempt to claw its way out of his throat, Vir turned slowly around to face the occupants of the room. "What the hell are you doing here, centauri?"
Blinking rapidly at the Narn and the Pak'mara, both en flagrante delicto, Vir's ability to talk utterly fled only a half second before he did. With the airlock sealed, Morden wouldn't be able to see him, and he could get back to safety before anyone else knew he had been down here. In fact, his feet had already taken him a dozen steps away before he stopped.
What is Morden doing down here? Vir stood for a moment, in an agony of indecision, torn between his good sense backed with a healthy dose of pragmatic cowardice, and the growing sense that whatever Morden was doing would be very, very bad. His hand, automatically straying to the tiny weight of the gun, decided it for him.
Glancing in the airlock window, he could see it was empty, so he rushed inside, yanking on a mask. He could hear the footsteps in the atmosphere, and hurried after them, truthfully only a few corridors in. He found them, Morden stopped in front of a door and accessing the keypad.
"Mister Morden! Imagine meeting you here! Out for a late-night meeting with someone else?" Vir's mouth was drier than dust, dry as a million year drought on a planet orbiting too close to its sun.
Morden paused, letting his hand fall away from the access plate. "Mister Cotto. This seems like a very strange place for you to be wandering, so late at night." His grin was hidden behind the mask, and for a moment Vir wondered if his teeth were sharpened and pointed, like those beasts nobles liked to hunt for sport. "I've heard it's dangerous to go around alone on this station for a Centauri."
"Oh, I'm not too worried. I'm just an observer." His hands were trembling, one in his pocket and the other tucked into the waistband, fingertips stroking the handle of the gun. "You do know what the observer effect is, right?"
"Of course I do. Good night, Mister Cotto." Clearly ignoring him in the hopes he'd go away, Morden turned back to the access panel, fingertips hovering over the buttons without actually touching anything. "Why are you still here, Vir?"
"I'm observing." He swallowed, tongue almost sticking to the roof of his mouth as he tried to wash away the sour taste filling his senses. "I mean, it's said that the some situations will actually turn out different if there's an observer present. So, I'm observing. That's not a problem for you, is it? Not out doing something you wouldn't want anyone else to know about?"
The lights in the passageway seemed to flicker, all of Morden's face dropping away into blackness but for the two glittering dots of fury behind his breathing mask. "Like I said, earlier, it's dangerous –"
Whatever else Morden might have said, he froze to ice as the gun fired. Vir's hand shook, but a moment later his other hand grabbed for it, keeping the muzzle pointed firmly at the general area of the lungs. Very slowly, Morden raised one hand to the top of his head, feeling the few dozen hairs now reduced to tiny wavering crisps. "Yes, Mister Morden, it certainly is dangerous. I think it might be best if we both leave. Or we can wait here for security."
Of course, security wasn't coming, but it was the best bluff Vir could come up with. He wasn't sure if he could actually pull the trigger with how badly he was shaking right then. But to his surprise, Morden backed away, hands still in the air, until he could shuffle out of sight down a side corridor and disappear.
It took Vir almost a full minute of struggling to get the pistol tucked back inside the waistband of his uniform, and another two before he could walk without leaning on the wall. So it was understandable that he completely missed Kosh watching him through the now open door as he fumbled his way back towards the airlock.
Garibaldi stared at Vir for almost two full minutes before raising his hand to his mouth. "Security, stop the elevator I'm in." Their conveyance shuddered to a halt. "Now shut up and let me concentrate."
Naturally, Vir opened his mouth to ask the obvious question, but managed to close it before actually vocalizing anything. He watched as the taciturn security chief field stripped the illegal PPG in about ten seconds, then reached over and snatched Vir's communicator right off his hand, dismantling that as well. Components went together, until two minutes later, Garibaldi stood up from the floor.
The hand with the gun extended it back to the confused Centauri, who in turn took the weapon and tucked it away. The remains of the communicator crunched under one heavy boot. "Your communicator fell off and got stepped on. If the tech heads give you any trouble, I'll back you up. Keep that put away. And if you're ever alone in a room with Morden, shoot to kill. No matter where you are on the station, as soon as you pull that trigger, there will be a maximum security alert to your location."
Vir could feel his eyes getting wider. "Why?"
"Security, release this elevator." He refused to meet Vir's eyes for a moment, staring down at the crushed plastic shell on the floor. "Because short of putting you in a cell for your own safety, that's the best I can do." The doors opened onto the Zocolo, and Garibaldi finally met his gaze. "Good luck, Vir."
Still trying to formulate a question, Vir's mouth opened and closed several times as Garibaldi walked away. So right before the elevator doors closed, Vir caught sight of someone the security chief hadn't seen, walking the other direction as he had. A man whose eyes promised death to Vir Cotto, just as they had everyone else who got in his way.
Morden raised his glass towards the closed doors, drained it, and dropped his tip in the glass as he walked away from the bar.
"Well?" Hackett asked, looking around the meeting room. Few of his aides wanted to meet his eyes, as almost all of them brought bad news.
"If all ships currently transiting were thrown out in the same way as the Aconcagua was, then Seventh and Eighth Fleets are scattered everywhere between here and Earth," Admiral Singh said. "From all of the surviving vessels of First, Third, and Fifth fleets, as well as all our stragglers present, we could just barely man up a single fleet."
"Most of our forces are still stuck on Earth," General Victus said. "The ships who escaped don't even match yours for tonnage. With the relay destroyed, I have no way to know if Palaven or any of our colonies survived enough to send us any aid."
"I can't be certain, but the biological samples we took support my hypothesis that a majority of the Reapers were somehow reverse-transformed into Leviathans," Dr. Bryson said. The stump of her left arm lifted slightly before a scowl shot across her face, and her bandaged right hand scratched gently at the stitches covering her shorn scalp. "The good news is, being organic now, they will need to eat. The bad news is that their indoctrination abilities are just as formidable, and our super-weapon is destroyed."
Hackett nodded, staring at the other senior officers. All of them bore injuries and the palpable weariness. "Ideas, then?"
"We'll be good for food for a little bit," Captain Gonzales said. "Cerberus did a number on the infrastructure, and the wildfires the Reapers started are still burning in a few places. But there's enough food down there to feed the fleet for six months." He coughed, holding a length of gauze to his mouth and lowering it bloody when the fit had passed. "Well, the human fleet, at least."
Victus inclined his head slightly, acknowledging the bitter reality – with the relays destroyed, and only fragments of the once mightiest military in the galaxy, his people were facing a slow death by starvation. "Then the question is, can we restore the relay ourselves? I've already put all but the most essential personnel on half rations."
"It's been two weeks, and we need answers," Hackett said. "We need solutions. Does anyone have anything?"
"Sir, if we had dextro crops, there are hydroponics in seeding facilities," Captain Pullich said. "My cousin brought them here before the geth showed up. I don't know if they're operational or not, but it's something."
Victus bows his head gratefully. "My logistics officers will see immediately what we could possibly grow."
"That still leaves the issue of what the hell happened to everyone else, and how we reach them," Hackett said. "Earth is years away at regular FTL, and that assumes we've got fuel, food, and eezo on board. Palaven's further away than that." He stared around the room again. "Anyone?"
No one answered. "Pass down to the crews, we need solutions. Anyone, of any rank, who can put out a workable proposal, I want it forwarded up yesterday."
"Sir." Pullich swallowed, one hand compulsively tracing the jagged scab on her neck. "Those Leviathans. Or Reapers. We only killed the two here because we caught them by surprise when that beam passed. With most of the FTL buoys destroyed, we don't have any kind of early warning system in place if they show up."
Hackett turned to look at Bryson. "You're the closest thing we've got to an expert. Can they travel at FTL?"
"I can't say for sure, but I would expect it. The Leviathans on Despoina were definitely biotics, and we already know biotics can put themselves in a sort of relay-like corridor to speed themselves up." Her left arm stump twitched again; her right hand tightened around the arm of her chair.
"Alright. Pullich, whichever ships have the most intact sensor systems, send them out five lightyears. Every direction, especially up and down from the local plane." One fingernail ripped away one of the many scabs dotting the back of his hands. "Last thing we need is for one of them to sneak up on us. Dismissed."
One by one, they walked or limped out of the conference room on board the Logan, the sole dreadnaught present. A logistics report popped up on his datapad, but Hackett's eyes were a million miles away, looking at their horrendous defeat, just as he had a dozen times a day since it happened.