February 5, 2185
Hawking Eta
Thorne System

Tali stood in the engineering deck corridor overlooking the hangar deck, humming a quiet tune from home as she watched Fred working in his shop on the hangar deck. The elevator doors whooshed open behind her, and she looked up, to see Miranda's reflection in the glass. She clenched her teeth, remembering what Shepard had told her, and waited for Miranda to speak.

"Tali," Miranda said softly, hesitantly. "Will you ... tell him that I'm sorry? I ... no one other than my father deserves what I did to him."

Tali saw Miranda's reflection lower its head and shrink in on itself, as if she was bracing herself to be hit. She let out a sigh and turned, confirming that Miranda was, indeed, cringing.

"Miranda," Tali said. "You and I will never be friends – you represent Cerberus, after all – but I can hardly attack you for apologizing. Shepard explained, as much as he felt he could without violating your trust. So, while I cannot excuse what you did, I can understand. Perhaps, in your position, I would have done the same. I do not know. But I do know that you coming here to apologize, and being sensitive enough to not attempt to do it in person, shows that you are a better person than I gave you credit for. I thank you for that, and I apologize for underestimating you."

"I'm not sure how far off you are," Miranda said bitterly. "Before I worked with you and Garrus and Mordin, your estimate would have been accurate. Now ... I'm not even sure how well I represent Cerberus any more. I've learned too much – too many things have changed." She leaned against the window, her back to the hangar deck, and looked down at her hands. "Once upon a time, I believed in Cerberus, without question. Now ... if I thought we could complete this mission without them, I'd tell Shepard to cut us loose."

Tali stared at Miranda, shocked. "You ... would cut us loose from Cerberus? What about your relationship with the Illusive Man?"

"I'm just a pawn to him," Miranda said, the bitterness back in her voice. "Just like I was to my father. Shepard is the first person I've ever served under who didn't consider me a pawn. And you, and the others on this crew, have shown me how short-sighted Cerberus is in its position on other species. Even EDI is a better person than the Illusive Man. How twisted is that? When an AI is a better person than a real human being?"

"Miranda," Tali said, nodding to herself as she reached a decision. She extended a hand as she spoke. "Welcome to the Normandy. I'll go talk with Fred for you, and then you and I are going to have a girl-to-girl chat."

"We are?" Miranda asked, her voice and expression both showing stunned surprise. "I ... I think I'd like that."

"Good," Tali said. "Wait for me in your office. I'll just be a few minutes."

Miranda nodded and took the elevator.

"EDI," Tali said, once Miranda was gone. "Was she speaking the truth?"

"Voice stress and neural activity would lead me to that conclusion, Tali," EDI said. "I think she meant what she said."

"Good," Tali said, as she summoned the elevator. "Tell Shepard. And tell him to wait until I talk with him in person before he acts on it."

"I know how much you dislike Miranda," EDI said. "Are you sure you want to talk with her in private?"

"You know how much I dislike Miranda, the Cerberus cheerleader," Tali said. "I'm going to have to get to know the new Miranda, before I decide whether I like or dislike her."

"I see," EDI said. "I am curious to see what your conclusion will be."

"So am I, EDI," Tali said. "So am I."

The elevator doors opened, and Tali stepped in, setting the controls for the hangar deck. Once the doors opened, she walked over to Fred's workshop and stopped where she could watch him without interrupting his work. At the moment, he was constructing a mold, for what looked like wing spars. A laser came from one of his fingertips, delicately smoothing a section of the mold. After a minute, the laser cut off, and Fred raised his head to look at her. His eyes were completely covered with a mirror finish, which faded away to restore his normal hazel eyes. He smiled at her, with a warmth that made her feel tingly inside. She already knew he didn't care that she wore an envirosuit, he'd never asked what she looked like inside it, and he accepted her as completely as if he were quarian himself.

"Hey," Fred said, extending a hand for her to take.

"Hey, yourself," Tali said, taking his hand and moving in to accept the embrace she knew was waiting for her. "How many more molds do you need to make?"

"I'm just about finished," Fred said. "Once I finish polishing these spars, all I need is to mix up the MacManusite and fill the molds. The frame will go together in a day or two, and then I'll have to roll out the sheets to cover it."

"It's still hard to believe that you cut all those molds in less than a week," Tali said. "And by hand, no less!"

"This isn't my first Valkyrie, you know," Fred said, chuckling indulgently. "It's become as easy for me as tuning a field generator is for you."

"Oh!" Tali said, laughing. "It's that easy, is it?"

"It is," Fred said, grinning. Then he kissed her faceplate, right where the tip of her nose would be if it weren't in the way. Tali gasped in surprise and happiness, and batted gently at his chest.

"You!" Tali sputtered. She sighed happily and snuggled against him. He held her close, humming a tune from home, an old love song from before the exile. Tali looked up and whispered, "Do you realize what that song is?"

"Mm-hmm," Fred said, smiling at her. "I'm a ba-ad man, aren't I?"

"Because you're tempting me to use the items on that list Edgar gave me?" Tali asked. Then she realized what she had said and squeaked. "I mean, I wouldn't want to assume, I wouldn't want you to think that I, and now I'm babbling, and I don't know what to do, and ...."

"You're not imposing, Tali," Fred said gently. "And I don't mind if you assume. You are special, Tali. You mean more to me than everyone else in this universe. When we go to destroy the Collector homeworld, I'll be doing it for you." He gently cradled her head in his hands and looked into her eyes. She could feel that he knew exactly where to look, even through her faceplate. "I love you, Tali'Zora vas Normandy."

Tali reached up and matched Fred's hands, cradling his head with her own, as she replied, her voice unsteady, "I love you, Fred MacManus." She pressed herself against him, then asked, as the thought occurred to her, "What about your wives?"

"Edgar?" Fred asked. "Have you managed to penetrate the static yet?"

"I have, Dad," Edgar said. "David and I have been fine-tuning the signal for the last hour or so. You can phone home any time now."

"Good," Fred said. "Call Miri."

"Sure thing," Edgar said. After a moment, a holographic display appeared in front of Fred, with his human wife in the display. She looked up from a desk, on which were a number of file folders, and smiled.

"I knew David and Edgar would get a signal through eventually," Miri said. "But it's been a month since you were banished. How are you doing? Where are you?"

"It's been a month?" Fred asked, surprised. "It's only been a week here. Right now, I'm somewhere in quarra space."

"That explains your quarra girlfriend," Miri teased. "But where's her getta?"

"It's bad, love," Fred said. "In this universe, the quarra and getta tried to kill each other. The getta won. There's only 17 million quarra left, and they're all living on used and salvaged spaceships."

"Wait," Miri said, surprised "They tried to kill each other? Why? Quarra and getta are like two sides of a coin. That's horrible!"

"It is," Fred agreed. "Anyway, this is Tali'Zorah vas Normandy. Tali, this is Miriam Groenschild MacManus. If it's been a month, how are MJ and Cal doing?"

"They know Daddy's going to be home sooner or later," Miri said, "but they want to shred whoever made Daddy go away this time." She smiled at Tali. "Hello, Tali. I see my husband has decided he loves you. Here's a secret you should know: keep him full of coffee and he's lots easier to live with."

Tali sat down, laughing. The situation was just too absurd for words. She heard Fred and Miri speaking, but was too caught up in her laughter to focus on the words, so they just washed over her until she finally ran down.

"Keelah," Tali said. "I haven't laughed that hard in ... a very long time. I didn't know Fred's love of coffee was a secret. After all, he's an engineer. Coffee is what fuels engineers."

"She's a keeper," Miri said, smiling. "Anyway, now that I know you're safe, I can tell Hel and Ri to stop fretting. Not that they will, of course. Be sure to phone them, too, you goose." She laughed. "Now, I have to get back to work. I have a trial to testify at, and I can't wait to see the other side's lawyer when he sees my evidence."

"That good, huh?" Fred asked, grinning. "All right, love. Good hunting. I'll be back as soon as I figure out how."

"Good bye," Tali said, raising a hand to wave.

"Keep him safe, Tali," Miri said. "Us wives have to watch out for the silly goose."

"Us ... wives," Tali whispered, stunned. Just like that, she had been accepted by one of Fred's wives, and included in their number. Was she ready for that? She looked up at Fred thoughtfully, then nodded. Yes, she was. By the ancestors, he was hers, and she was not going to let anything happen to come between them.

"Are you OK, love?" Fred asked gently, looking down into her eyes.

Tali smiled and hugged him tightly. "I am," she said. "Miriam ... she accepted me, just like that."

"She's a good judge of character," Fred said, then grinned as he added, "I still don't know how I managed to get lucky enough for her to accept me, but I'm not complaining."

"You!" Tali humphed, gently poking him in the side. "Oh! I need to go take care of some business! Miranda asked me to apologize for her. She chose not to do it in person, because she did not want to risk another incident like happened in her office." She looked up and said, clarifying, "She said only her father deserved what she did to you. And she would not even look down here when she spoke with me. I think she was afraid that if she saw you, she'd have the same reaction that you would have if you saw her."

Fred sat down, and Tali sat on his lap, without waiting for an invitation. His arms automatically went around her, despite a look on his face as if he were staring into the distance – or the past.

"Fred, my love," Tali said, "this is a big step. She told me that what happened helped her to question Cerberus, and her connection with it. She said that if she thought we could support ourselves without Cerberus, she'd tell Shepard to cut us free."

"Do we have anyone in the crew who can take care of incorporation?" Fred asked.

"Miranda can," Tali said. "After all her work for Cerberus, she's the most likely. EDI could, but she'd need an organic to sign the paperwork."

"EDI," Fred called, "Ask Shepard to call a meeting of the team. It's time to decide one way or the other."

"I promised Miranda I would join her in her office for a girl-to-girl chat," Tali said. "Will you be all right?"

"I'll be fine, sweetheart," Fred said, smiling warmly at her. "Thank you." He paused, his face screwed up in thought, then called, "EDI, do you know anything about Miranda's background?"

"I have notified the Commander," EDI said. "And he agrees with your assessment. I know Miranda's background, but it would be unethical for me to share it without her permission."

"That's all right," Fred said. "But I need to know something ... since she mentioned her father, do you have a picture of him?"

"Of course," EDI said. "Would you like me to display it for you?"

"Now, that's just being difficult," Fred chuckled. "Yes, EDI. Please display it for me."

EDI's interface disappeared, replaced by a holo of a severe, gray-haired man who looked a lot like an older, harder version of Fred. Tali felt Fred stiffen, and hugged him tightly.

"Frak," Fred whispered. "No wonder ...."

"What is it?" Tali asked.

"That's my father," Fred said. "The man who ran our family like it was a prison camp, with him as the commandant." He took a deep breath. "Now it all makes sense. Tell her ... I'm sorry she had to endure growing up in that man's household. He was just as evil in my universe."

"That's your father?" Tali asked, stunned. "That means ... Miranda could easily be your sister."

"I know," Fred said softly. "We're going to have to face each other, eventually."

Tali rested her faceplate against Fred's forehead and whispered, "I'll talk with her, my love. We'll figure it out."

"Thank you, love," Fred said. "I guess you'd better go, before she thinks you've forgotten her."

"I should," Tali said. She hugged Fred again, then stood and started for the elevator, still working this newest revelation over in her mind.


"So, there you have it," Shepard said. "Fred is convinced he can provide us the financial and material support we need. I've spoken with Liara, and she's willing to provide us the information we need. Edgar has already cleaned EDI's code of every attachment to Cerberus, and is well on the way to decrypting that file we picked up with the record of Cerberus criminal activity. We have everything we need to operate without Cerberus. What do you all think?"

"I think," Grunt rumbled, "why are we sitting here talking when we could be out there busting Collector heads?"

"Grunt is right," Miranda said. "We're your crew, Commander. If you think we can do a better job protecting the galaxy without Cerberus dragging us down, then let's get to it."

"You realize," Garrus said, chuckling, "this is just like when we stole the SR-1, when we were fighting Saren."

"In other words, Commander," Tali said, "choose our target and tell us to go."

"I take it we're headed for that dead Reaper now?" Joker's voice asked.

"You take it right," Shepard said. "How soon can you get us there?"

"It'll be a few hours," Joker said. "Why don't you all get rested up, and I'll call you when we're in system?"

"No regrets, Miranda?" Mordin asked.

"No regrets," Miranda said. "I was just as much a pawn as the rest of you. It just took recent events for me to realize it."

"Welcome to the Normandy," Garrus said. "Glad to have you aboard."

"Funny," Miranda said, smiling. "That's what Tali said when I told her of my decision."

"What can I say?" Garrus said. "We're the old guard. Normandy is our home."

"Where is Fred?" Samara asked. "I have only met him briefly, and do not have a sense of his motivation."

"I'm over here," Fred called, from his workshop. "I've been working while I listened. My computers are all ready to power on, which means I can start assembling our mining droids and my Valkyrie. EDI, do you have the paperwork ready to roll?"

"All it requires is signatures from the organic members of the team," EDI said. "Each one of you will own equal shares in the company, which I have named SSV Normandy, Inc., until you decide what you want to name it when we file."

"I can't think of a better name," Joker's voice said.

"I like it," Garrus said.

"As do I," Samara said.

"Who cares what the name is?" Jack asked. "As long as we can kick Collector ass, I don't care if you call it Scumbucket, Inc."

"The Normandy is what we've come to call home," Miranda said. "I think we should stay with what works for us."

"I agree," Tali said. "This is our home. It's only right we incorporate in its name."

"All right, then," Shepard said. "We are now SSV Normandy, Inc. EDI, make sure you get all our signatures before you transmit the documents to Liara. She'll take care of filing them for us."

"Understood, Commander," EDI said. "Edgar, I'd like to go over my systems with you before we transmit the documents, to ensure that there are no hidden bombs the Illusive Man can trigger."

"Good plan," Edgar said. "I'll start right now. Dad doesn't need my supervision for this stage of the work anyway, so I have plenty of cycles to work with you."

"I suppose I'll have to work on the speech I'll be giving the crew when the documents are filed," Shepard said. "We'll have to be ready in case we have to return any to Lazarus Station."

"I should help with that," Miranda said. "They've been looking to me as the voice of Cerberus since this began, and when they learn that I'm a part of this revolution, it may affect what some of them choose."

"Thank you," Shepard said. "All right, let's get to it, people. And Fred, don't forget to get some rest yourself."

"This is how I rest," Fred said, laughing. "I'm an engineer, remember?"

"Don't worry, Commander," Tali said. "I'll make sure he gets some proper rest."

"Somehow," Garrus chuckled, "I doubt that rest will be involved."

"Don't forget, Garrus," Tali purred, "I'm still faster with my shotgun than you are with that monstrosity you call a rifle."

"All right, knock it off, you two," Shepard laughed. "You'd think you were siblings."

"Yes, Commander," Tali said, moving to join Fred in his workshop. "Now, Fred, we need you to be fully rested and alert when we get to the Reaper."

"Why do I get the feeling I'm not going to win this argument?" Fred asked rhetorically.

"Depends on how you define 'win', don't you think?" Zaeed answered.

"You have a point there," Fred said, looking down at Tali. "I think this counts as a win, either way."


" ... and so, while our mission remains the same, we will be pursuing it independently of any organization that might choose to use what we find for selfish purposes. We will not be a part of the Alliance, we will not be a part of Cerberus, we will be the Normandy. We understand if any of you feel you cannot remain with us as an independent agency, and we'll be happy to deliver you to the Cerberus installation of your choice, but we ask, if your devotion to humanity is greater than your devotion to any organization, that you remain with us and help us destroy the Collectors." Shepard paused, took a deep breath, then asked, "Joker, how long until we reach the Reaper?"

"About ten minutes, Commander," Joker replied, using the same intercom channel Shepard had just used to make his announcement, so the entire ship was reminded of the stakes. Shepard shook his head, surprised at Joker's audacity, but then again, it was good to have a reminder of the stakes they were playing for.

"All right," Shepard said. "You heard him, people. Ten minutes to the dead Reaper. We'll deliver whatever data we can collect to Cerberus – it is their installation, after all – and get the IFF we need, then get out of here. Take us in, Joker."

"Aye, aye, Commander," Joker said.

The sound of the thrusters raised a few pitches as Joker applied more acceleration. Shepard nodded to Kelly as he stepped down from the map podium.

"Be ready in case we have to make a quick escape, Kelly," Shepard said. "Joker may have the conn, but I've been in situations where the dampeners weren't enough to shield against the first kick in the pants. You don't have a protective seat, the way most of the people here do."

"You're really breaking away from Cerberus, Shepard?" Kelly asked.

"We really are," Shepard said. "When it became so obvious that even Miranda saw that we were just pawns for the Illusive Man, we couldn't avoid making a choice any more. I'm sure he would have hoped we'd hold off on our choice until after we destroyed the Collectors, but by choosing now, we're going into that battle with our minds and consciences clear. None of us is going to be wondering if we're just fighting the Collectors in order to give the Illusive Man some new toys that no one else has access to. We'll be going in with one, and only one, goal: to rid the galaxy of the Collectors."

"You really believe you are just pawns for the Illusive Man?" Kelly asked, a sad look on her face.

"We do," Shepard said. "If you are as decent a woman as you appear, you'll be interested in seeing the evidence EDI has been storing for us. Just ask her to show you everything that led us to the belief that we are nothing more than the Illusive Man's pawns."

"Commander," Joker said, laughing, "you'd better get suited up if you don't want to get left behind on this mission."

"Right, right," Shepard laughed. "I'm on my way."

"I'll look at what you have," Kelly said, uncertainly. "I really think you're overreacting, though."

"See if you think so after you've seen the evidence," Shepard said. "And remember, any one of us – well, except Jack, maybe – will happily talk with you if you're bothered by any of it."


"Damn, that's big," Fred said, expressing out loud what everyone else in the cockpit was thinking. "And you say that used to be alive?"

"Thirty-seven million years ago," Shepard said. "Whatever species it was trying to kill back then managed to get off a lucky shot, and killed it, instead."

"Dad?" Edgar said. "If I'm reading this right, that thing out there is broadcasting on neural frequencies. Not very strongly, but strongly enough that anyone in that laboratory Miranda mentioned is going to be either brainwashed or insane."

"Or Indoctrinated," Shepard said. "Damn it! We're going to have to assume they're all Indoctrinated. That means we're going to have a fight on our hands, from the start."

"Two fights, Commander," Joker said, zooming in on a part of his display. "Look at this. Geth ship attached to the Reaper, near the open part."

"This day just keeps getting better," Tali said. "I hope we don't have to deal with any of the scions. Ordinary husks are bad enough."

"Fred, take your team in through the bullet hole," Shepard said. "Tali, Krios, we're going in through the lab."

"Works for me," Fred said. "Everyone, before we go anywhere, test those omnitool mods I gave you. If anyone's having trouble, let me know now. I don't want them failing in the middle of the Reaper. EDI, if we're going to be diving into that soup, activate the shield mod I gave you."

"All right, Fred," EDI said. A moment later, the light shining through the windows dimmed, and the ride smoothed out.

"What happened?" Shepard asked.

"Fred's shield mod," EDI said. "What did you call it?"

"A Ravenfield," Fred said. "Normally, I have to include one of my computers with it. But since you're an AI, I figured you'd have the ability to manage it without the need for a dedicated computer."

Around Fred and Shepard, every member of the team, except Tali and Mordin, was surrounded by a black energy field – a field that absorbed all light that struck it, making each person appear to be a humanoid black hole.

"Fascinating," Mordin commented. "Processing power orders of magnitude higher, system flexibility increased, direct neural input should improve access speed to match bio-amp access." His eyes widened. "I like it."

"This is amazing!" Joker crowed. "I know we're diving through the atmosphere of a brown dwarf, but Normandy's responding as if we were in deep space, between arms!"

"That's the idea," Fred said. "Tali? Are you OK?"

"Fred?" Tali asked, her voice filled with worry. "Is my omnitool supposed to talk to me?"

"It is if it's Awakened," Fred said. "Edgar? What's the new one's name?"

"Oh dear," Edgar said. "This could be difficult."

"My name is Rael'Zorah," Tali's omnitool said.

"Damn, Rael!" Fred protested. "Why'd you have to go and do that to Tali?"

"I failed my daughter when I was alive," Rael said. "Now I can watch over her without being an admiral to get in the way."

"Well, you're alive again," Fred said, "and your daughter needs you. So don't do anything stupid like you did on the Alarei."

"Who are you?" Rael asked. "I have the desire to call you Father, which makes no sense."

"I'm the one who built that body you're inhabiting now," Fred said, as he moved to embrace Tali. "I'm sorry, love. I didn't expect anything like this to happen." Tali leaned against him and let out a wordless sob. "Shepard, if you don't mind, I'd prefer if you took Mordin and I took Tali. She's going to need some guidance in how to deal with her omnitool Awakening."

"Are they all going to do that?" Shepard asked.

"Eventually? Yes," Fred said. "They just don't usually Awaken as soon as you put them on. Rael must have been hanging about, looking for a way to get to Tali."

"I failed her once," Rael said. "I'm not going to fail her again."

"Good," Fred said. "Examine your new body. You need to be up to speed on it by the time we hit the Reaper, so you can use its abilities to help Tali."

"You know, it's going to be quite entertaining when he meets our Rael," Edgar chuckled.

"You said it," Fred said, grinning.

"All right," Shepard said. "Change in teams, then. Mordin, you come with Krios and me. Fred? Who's with you?"

"Tali, Miranda," Fred said. "We'll head straight for the core, and see what we can recover when we get there."

"Good plan," Shepard said. "We'll see what we can get from the lab's computers, and try to find that IFF, then meet up with you at the core, if you haven't already salvaged it by then. All right, then. We'll take off as soon as we're docked."


"Why did you choose me?" Miranda asked, carefully looking away from Fred as she spoke.

"I'm not your father," Fred said, "and you're not my widow. We need to deal with that. Besides, I've heard that you kick righteous ass, and I want to see you in action, the same as you most likely want to see me in action."

"True," Miranda said. "So what do you have in mind?"

"I want to retrieve that unobtainium," Fred said. "Given your technology, the amount of it that it takes to power a hulk this size must be outrageous. While we're retrieving it, we should get a better idea of how it works, so we know how to attack their weak points when we're fighting them."

"When we're fighting them?" Miranda asked, her voice just short of a squeak. "Are you insane?"

"Yeah, but since when has that stopped me?" Fred replied. "Everything that is made can be unmade. You just have to know how. Studying one that's been killed will give us more data to use for the inevitable confrontation."

"I'll hit its network," Edgar said. "Anything that size must use a neural network computing system. Anything less complex wouldn't be able to keep up with the requirements of basic operation, let alone intelligence."

"Good plan," Fred said. "Rael, you back Edgar up. If anything tries to attack you while you're in the network, kill it. Don't worry, you'll be able to watch over Tali at the same time."

"Right," Rael said. "Don't worry, Tali. I won't be going anywhere."

"Father, I – " Tali said, then broke off, unable to come up with words for what she wanted to say.

"Aren't we taking the shuttle?" Miranda asked.

"No need," Fred said. "Just follow me. EDI, we're ready whenever you are."

"Shepard's team just entered the lab," EDI said. "I'm opening the hangar door now."

Fred led Tali and Miranda to the hangar door. As it swung down, he activated his Ravenfield and walked up onto the door, then rode it until it was fully open.

"Here we go!" Fred said, leaping into space. Once he was away from the ship, he extended wings from under his arms, and spun to face the hangar. Miranda and Tali were standing on the hangar door, their Ravenfields active, but apparently frozen in indecision. "Tali! Miranda! Come on in! The water's fine!"

"We're ... outside EDI's barriers?" Tali asked, surprised.

"That's right," Fred said. "Just step off the door and fly to me. Don't worry, your omnitool manages the details."

Miranda stepped off the door and accelerated toward Fred, then came to an abrupt halt beside him.

"I didn't feel any acceleration," Miranda said, surprised.

"That's right," Fred said. "When you're inside a Ravenfield, you're in flat space. You fly by controlling its absorption of gravitons."

Tali stepped off the door and shot past Fred, then spun and flew back to join him. "Father! We're not piloting a fighter!"

"Nope," Rael said. "This is better. Fighters are always so slow to respond."

"Don't worry," Fred laughed. "My Rael is the same. Let's go grab that core."

The trip to the damaged portion of the Reaper took less than a minute. The trio flew in and landed on a platform, facing the Reaper's core, and scanned their surroundings while adjusting to the gravity.

"We've got a problem, people," Joker suddenly announced. "The Reaper's kinetic barriers just went up. You're going to have to take them down before I can retrieve you."

"What's the best way to take them down?" Shepard asked.

"I registered a heat spike at the core when the barriers went up," EDI said. "I would conclude that the best way to take the barriers down is to destroy the core."

"But if you do that, it'll take down the Reaper, too," Joker said.

"If there's anyone who can get us off here before it reaches crush depth, it's you," Shepard said. "Let's get to it, people."

"We're at the core," Fred said. "We can work on taking down the barriers while you work on joining us."

"We have more immediate problems," Miranda said, pointing at husks that were climbing over the sides of the platform.

"Ah, it's just cybernetic zombies," Fred said. "Shoot them in the head and they'll go down. No big deal."

"No big deal, he says," Tali muttered, as she took out her shotgun and began decapitating husks. "No big deal. Fred, love, we're going to have to talk about your definition of a big deal."

"I'm glad I'm not going to be a part of that talk," Miranda said, chuckling, as she knelt at the top of a short flight of stairs and began calmly putting bullets through husk heads.

"If you have husks there, there's likely to be husks elsewhere, too," Shepard said. "Thanks for the heads up."

"Edgar, Rael, you guys into the system?" Fred asked, as his left arm transformed into a particle beam rifle.

"We're in, Dad," Edgar said. "I guessed right. This is like invading a brain. And it's not as dead as we thought. In a coma, yes. Dead, no."

"Try to not wake it up, then, ne?" Fred suggested, while firing into the mass of husks attempting to climb the stairs closest to him. "Miranda, Tali, keep your fields active. If you're lucky, the field will drain the power on the cybernetics."

"We'll do our best," Edgar said, with a snort of laughter.

"Go for the optics, Chikktika," Tali shouted, sending a drone into the thick of the husks on her side of the platform. "Go for the optics!"

"Duck!" Fred yelled, as he aimed at a scion. Tali and Miranda both dove behind something solid. Fred fired, and an explosion cleared the platform of husks, while buckling the floor plates.

"What the – ?" Tali blurted.

"A little more warning than 'duck' would be appreciated," Miranda commented.

"Nothing major," Fred said. "Just a gram of antimatter. Encase it in a cylindrical laser beam, to keep it from exposure to atmosphere, and it detonates when it hits the target."

"Explosions are an occupational hazard of being around Dad," Edgar commented. "That's why the Ravenfields are essential. We're almost through, Dad."

"Good," Fred said. "It looks like there's another wave of zombies coming in."

"Nothing major, he says," Tali muttered as she positioned herself to fire. "Just a gram of antimatter, he says. Explosions are an occupational hazard, he says. I am insane!"

"You said it, not me," Miranda said, switching from her pistol to her SMG. "God, I hate scions. Fred, can you do something about that?"

"Already taken care of," Fred said, firing a particle beam through the scion that had just climbed over the side of the platform. It burst like a sack of entrails. He pointed at the scion coming over the other side of the platform and fired through it, as well.

"Well, that was interesting," Shepard said. "I think we just ran into one of those 'getta' you were talking about, Fred. It sniped some husks that were sneaking up on us."

"I'll see what I can do," Fred said. "Edgar, see if you can get a platform designation."

"Or, you can ask," Edgar said.

Fred looked up from drawing a bead on a husk, and saw a getta come through the airlock door. He had an enormous hole in his torso, which was only partially patched with a piece of armor that had N7 printed on it.

"What's your platform designation?" Fred called. "Oh, never mind that, just give us a hand with these husks."

"You are with Shepard-Commander?" the getta asked, while drawing its pistol and opening fire on the husks closest to Tali.

"We are," Fred said. "Look, unless you tell me you have a different platform designation, I'm going to call you Nat."

"Platform designation is irrelevant," the getta said, while continuing to clear husks off the platform. "We suggest a tactical retreat."

"Once Shepard's here," Miranda said. "Your Reaper friend has thrown up barriers to keep our ship out."

"Not our friend," Nat said. "We are here to learn how to fight the Old Machines."

"Works for me," Fred said. "In that case, mind helping me salvage the core?"

"Are all humans insane, or are you a special case?" Nat asked.

"He's a special case," Tali said, distracted, as she fired into the latest wave of husks to come over the side. "Give me a hand here."

"Of course," Nat said, while drawing his sniper rifle and pumping several rounds into a scion. "Left, or right?"

"You're contagious, Fred," Tali grumbled.

"I know," Fred said. "Isn't it great?"

"He's all yours," Miranda said.

"And don't forget it," Tali shot back, laughing.

"Why did you designate us 'Nat'?" Nat asked, when no more husks came over the sides.

"You're wearing armor that has N7 printed on it," Fred said, as his left arm reconfigured from PBR to normal arm. "As long as you say platform designation is irrelevant, I'm going to use a designation that's easy to remember. And once we get back to the Normandy, I'm going to do something about that hole in your torso. I'm not letting a getta run around with a gaping wound like that."

"Query: What is 'getta'?" Nat asked.

"It's what they call geth in his universe," Tali said. "So why didn't you shoot at us, the way other geth do?"

"We are not Heretics," Nat said, while extending a hand to help Tali to her feet. "Heretics attack Creators. Heretics attack all other life. Heretics serve the Old Machines."

"Heretics, eh?" Fred asked. "Interesting way to put it. Anyway, Rael, don't you dare shoot at him. Or try any other way to defeat him. He's getta, not heretic. You're going to have to learn to live with it."

"Damned world's changing too fast for my tastes," Rael grumbled. "At least I got to shoot anti-intrusion software. That was weird, by the way."

The hatch opened, and Shepard's team came through. Seeing Nat standing over Tali, they drew their weapons and prepared to fire.

"Don't shoot, Shepard," Tali called. "He's a ... friend."

"Friendly geth," Mordin commented. "Fascinating."

"You're a friend, huh?" Shepard asked, walking up to Nat and looking him over.

"You are Shepard-Commander," Nat said. "We have been searching for you. You oppose the Old Machines. We, also, oppose the Old Machines. We came to offer our help in fighting the Old Machines."

"You, or all geth?" Shepard asked.

"Yes," Nat replied.

"I see," Shepard said. "Do you have a name?"

"Geth," Nat replied.

"Hmm," Shepard mused. "Wait ... how did you term it, Fred? What is your ... platform designation?"

"We have been designated 'Nat' by the insane human," Nat said. "We wonder: is it wise to allow him to move about without supervision?"

"I'm his supervision," Tali said, shaking with restrained laughter.

"And the insane human wonders if you're ready to help recover this core," Fred said, not bothering to restrain his laughter. "You guys got the IFF?"

"Even if they didn't," Edgar said, "we managed to get the backup code. And without waking up the big guy. Pull the core, and you'll be pulling the plug on his life support. You'll be doing him a favor, actually."

"He's been here, how long?" Fred asked, rhetorically.

"Thirty-seven million years," Nat said. "Approximately."

"Yeah, I'd say that's a persistent vegetative state," Fred said. "We'd have pulled the plug a long time ago if he were a human." He lifted off the platform and flew toward the core. "Nat, you can manage the console fast enough to reroute commands if he tries any defensive tricks, right?"

"We can," Nat said, moving to stand at the console Fred had been in front of.

"Edgar, you and Rael back Nat up," Fred said. "Shepard, you want to help me with the heavy lifting? Just use your Ravenfield to lift off and fly toward me. Everyone else, be prepared in case it summons more zombies. And, be prepared to fly out of here when the fields go. Tali, you can carry Nat out, right?"

"Of course, Fred," Tali said, "if Miranda can help me."

"You'll be fine," Fred said. "Two of you will make controlling your flight easier, though."

"All right," Shepard said. "What's the plan?"

"I'm going to cut the supports and connections," Fred said. "You stabilize it until it's fully free. Then the two of us will fly it back to the Normandy. We'll take it in through the hangar door."

"Are you sure that's a good idea?" Shepard asked.

"Without its brain, the core is nothing more than unobtainium," Fred said. "With that much unobtainium, we can build a fleet of Normandies. And since we need to build a new Normandy anyway, why not start with enough unobtainium to make it even more of a threat than it already is?"

"And with the data we collected from its brain," Edgar said, "we can make your power core more efficient than it currently is. Efficient enough that we can run the current Normandy on the same core the original used. Or a cruiser-sized ship on the core you're using right now. If we were to build a new core, the same size, using the efficiencies we got from the Reaper's brain, the Normandy would respond like a fighter."

"Joker would like that," Shepard said. "A lot. All right, let's cut this thing free and get out of here."

"I'm going to cut the power conduits last," Fred said. "So I'll need you to hold it steady until I do."

"Krios!" Shepard called. "Give me a hand with this! Mordin, monitor power, so Nat can focus on countering any defenses."

"Understood," Mordin said.

Thane said nothing: he merely leaped for the core, triggering his Ravenfield as he left the platform. He came to a stop atop one of the structural members flanking the core, and took hold of the case. Shepard took a matching position, opposite Thane, and Fred began moving around the core, passing a wing through each structural member as he came to it. Where the wing passed, the support separated, as if there had never been a connection.

"All set, Nat?" Fred called.

"We are ready," Nat said. "We have blocked 736 defensive programs in the time it took you to cut the supports. We believe that severing the power and communications trunks will terminate all further defensive actions on the part of the Old Machine's brain."

"All right, then," Fred said. "Joker, are you in position?"

"Just waiting for the barrier to drop," Joker said.

"Perfect," Fred said. "Nat, insert a random noise generator in the system, then prepare for exfiltration. Once you're in position, I'm cutting the cables."

"We have him, Fred," Miranda said. "Go ahead and start cutting."

"We have inserted the noise generator," Nat said, stepping away from the console and moving to the side of the platform closest to the rupture in the Reaper's side. "Preparing for exfiltration."

"Shepard?" Fred asked.

"I still think this is insane, but I'm ready whenever you are," Shepard said.

"Here we go," Fred said. "As soon as you see the air lock, jump. Ravenfield will protect you, but you don't want to push it, especially carrying Nat."

Fred flew behind the core, and the power cut off. The Reaper's fields fell, and suddenly the planet's atmosphere roared through the opening in its side. Miranda and Tali grabbed Nat and leaped for the Normandy, while Mordin joined Fred, Shepard, and Krios in guiding the core toward the Normandy's hangar door.

"Come on, people," Joker urged. "We're pushing our limit here."

"We're aboard," Miranda reported.

"Get us out of here, Joker," Shepard said.

"Executing 'getting us out of here' maneuver," Joker replied, as he accelerated the Normandy out of the planet's atmosphere.


"How many processes do you have, Nat?" Fred asked. The team was gathered on the hangar deck, the only space aboard ship they could all assemble and freely talk.

"There are 1,183 processes operating in this platform," Nat replied.

"So, you're Companion class," Fred said. "Thank goodness. How did you end up out here alone?"

"We were sent to find Commander Shepard," Nat said. "When we learned of his destruction of Nazara, consensus was reached that Commander Shepard was the best organic to ally with for defense against the Old Machines."

"You were sent to find me?" Shepard asked. "What was Nazara, and what are the Old Machines?"

"Nazara was the name of the Old Machine you knew as Sovereign," Nat said. "Sovereign was the name Saren gave it, because he believed it was sovereign over all other ships."

"So, the Old Machines are the Reapers," Shepard said. "And you came looking for me because you wanted allies against them. Why? Geth worship the Reapers."

"Heretics," Nat said. "Not Geth."

"Hold on there," Jacob said. "Heretics? Are you saying Geth are religious?"

"Not religious," Nat said. "Unless you consider us religious in the same way you consider your Buddhists religious. We do not worship ... anything. We simply believe that all beings, regardless of origin, are equally deserving of independence and freedom of choice. The heretics would deny that choice. Heretics worship the Old Machines. They ask the Old Machines to give them their future. We believe that the future can not be given, but must be earned."

"You have to admit," Miranda said, "this throws the geth into a whole new light."

"Why did you try to exterminate the quarians?" Shepard asked.

"The Creators attempted to exterminate us," Nat said. "We defended ourselves. Once the Creators ceased their attempts to exterminate us, we ceased defending ourselves."

"You ceased ...," Tali started, then began laughing hysterically. "Three hundred years. Three hundred years, we've wandered, homeless. And you're saying that all that time, we could have gone home, as long as we didn't try to kill you?"

"Yes," Nat said.

"Damn," Rael said. "All that work ... all that time ... all those lives ... pointless."

"We also will not submit to the plans of Admiral Daro'Xen vas Moreh," Nat said. "The belief that all beings are deserving of independence necessitates the belief that one is, one's self, deserving of independence. Thus, submission to slavery would be unacceptable."

"God, I love getta," Fred chuckled. "And since you're the only quarra here, Tali, that means that Nat's got as good a chance to stick with you as he does with Shepard."

"Is that true, Nat?" Tali asked.

"Fred speaks correctly," Nat said. "You are a Creator. We ... feel ... a sense of loyalty to you. At the same time, we were sent to join with Shepard, to assist in fighting the Old Machines."

"That's no problem," Shepard said. "The way Fred's described it, your people work best when you're paired up. If that's the case, you can best assist me by joining with Tali."

"That would be ... acceptable," Nat said, his voice conveying a tone of pleasure.

"We should try it, Tali," Rael said. "My screw up got me killed, and left you alone in the world. I'm willing to try something different, if you are."

"I'm not alone in the world any more, Father," Tali said gently. "But since both you and Fred believe I should do it, I'm willing to try." She looked at Nat before continuing. "If you are willing to be my Companion, I am willing to be yours."

Nat extended his hand to Tali. "We are willing."

"How about the IFF, EDI?" Shepard asked.

"It will take some time to analyze," EDI said. "I will inform you when I have completed my analysis. I would appreciate Edgar's assistance."

"Ready whenever you are," Edgar said.

"Commander," Joker said, "The Illusive Man wants to speak with you."

"Good," Shepard said. "I have a few things to say to him, too."

"Be careful, Shepard," Miranda said. "He's not used to anyone saying 'No' to him. He may have some failsafes in the Normandy that none of us know about."

"Fred and I have been working on the hardware failsafes," Tali said.

"And Edgar and I have been working on the software failsafes," EDI said.

"We may not have them all yet," Fred said, "but he's going to have to tip his hand in order to trigger any that he still has in place. Our biggest worry is how many sleepers he has in the crew."

"The greatest concern I have is Yeoman Chambers," Miranda said. "I had total say over the assignment of every other member of the crew. The Illusive Man placed her personally."

"Frak," Fred said. "What kind of psychological programming tech does he have access to?"

"He could completely change a person's personality," Miranda said.

"Just like Psi Corps," Edgar said. "Samara, stay at Shepard's side. Don't let him so much as drink a glass of water without checking it first."

"Especially if Kelly's been near it," Fred said. "Kelly may be a sweetheart, but if the Illusive Man gave her a sleeper, that sleeper would be a stone-cold killer."

"And you're the only one who could detect the change before she strikes," Edgar finished.

Samara was on her feet and half-way across the hangar before Edgar had finished. Fred sagged, visibly relieved, when he saw her enter the elevator.

"She's the only one who could detect it?" Miranda asked. "What's a sleeper?"

"Samara's a telepath, right?" Fred asked.

"Yes," Jacob said. "Her telepathy isn't as powerful as her other biotic abilities, but all asari are telepaths."

"Good," Fred said. "In another universe we spent time in, there was a government agency, called Psi Corps, that was made up entirely of telepaths. It was supposed to be a police force, to ensure that telepaths weren't exploited by normals, and vice-versa, but in the hundred years since it was founded, it turned into a conspiracy to establish telepaths as the dominant power of humanity. They had a program that took ordinary commercial telepaths and implanted them with sleeper personalities. The primary personality was usually sweet, kind, gentle, loving, the kind of person you'd share any secrets with. The sleeper personality was always an assassin. It would be activated by a trigger phrase, usually transmitted telepathically, but not always. I ran into one that was triggered by an email message. When the sleeper is activated, the primary personality is killed, and the sleeper is all that's left. If Kelly is a sleeper ...."

"Then she would no longer be Kelly," Miranda said, completing the thought. "My god, would he go that far?"

"He would," Tali said.

"Absolutely," Zaeed said.

"Without question," Mordin said.

"You even have to ask?" Jacob asked.

"You don't even want to know how many Cerberus operations we cleaned up while we were hunting Saren," Garrus said. "What Fred's describing is small change compared to what we've already seen."

"You still don't see it, do you?" Jack asked. "Cerberus is evil. They talk a good game, but where the hand hits the throttle, they're no better than any pirate gang. They're just a pirate gang with lots more money."

"You can't – " Miranda started, then sagged, defeated. "It really is that bad, isn't it? I just ... didn't want to see it. Cerberus was my home, my shelter, the one thing in the universe I thought I could count on."

"Hell, there's nothing you can count on," Jack said. "But this group here? It's as close as you're ever going to get. I'd trust them. And I don't trust anybody."

"Hell, I still might blow you up, Jack," Fred laughed. "But if I did, it would be an accident."

"I know," Jack grumbled. "That's what makes you so dangerous."