February 19, 2185
Omega Nebula
Amada System

"Shit, shit, shit," Joker cursed as he crawled through the maintenance accessway between the science lab and life support. "I thought you and Edgar had killed all the bombs!"

"This code was inactive," EDI said. "There was no connection between it and the main IFF code when we debugged it. It did not connect until we put the IFF online. Be careful, Jeff. There are Collectors in the mess area. Stay close to the emergency lights and you should avoid them."

February 19, 2185
The Phoenix Massing
The Sea of Storms

"Wipe them," Shepard said. "Rewriting them is no more ethical than what they were going to do to you."

"Very well," Nat said. "It will require some time to insert the correct code. This terminal will require defense until the insertion is complete."

"We're good," Zaeed said. "Get to it."

"I'm right behind you," Tali said. "Just tell me what you need."

"You see this code?" Nat asked, while pointing out areas on the terminal's display. "If you will make the necessary adjustments in this region, I can make the necessary adjustments in this region."

Tali linked her omnitool to the terminal and began working. "Let's do it."


"Shit, shit, shit," Joker cursed under his breath as he looked up the stairs from the engineering basement. A Collector pod was just leaving Engineering as he watched. After waiting a moment to ensure nothing else was moving, he scrambled up the stairs, wincing as he felt his legs splintering under his weight.

"I have sealed the doors to Engineering," EDI said. "Once you have manually activated the engines, I will open all the hatches to space."

"What about the crew?" Joker asked.

"Jeff, you are the crew," EDI said. "The Collectors have taken everyone else."

"Shit, shit, shit," Joker cursed as he began working Tali's control panel.


"Nat!" Tali yelled, as Nat's shield failed and he took a direct hit from a Heretic's rocket launcher. She jammed her shotgun into the Heretic's torso and pulled the trigger, blowing it back across the hallway.

"Rerouting power," Nat said, as his shield sprang back to life. He looked at the spot the rocket had hit, and added, "That's going to leave a mark."

"Hurry up," Zaeed yelled. "We're almost at the exit."

"Everybody run!" Shepard yelled, unlimbering his rocket launcher. "I've only got nine shots left. Get that hatch open!"


"Executing 'get the hell out of here' maneuver," EDI said.

The power core flared into life, and Joker fell onto his back as the sudden acceleration exceeded the dampeners' ability to counter. He felt several bones shatter with the impact, but he was alive. That was what mattered.

"I am sealing the hatches and repressurizing the ship now, Jeff," EDI said. "You should report to the med bay, so I can scan you properly."

"Whatever you say, mom," Joker said, weakly attempting to find some sarcasm to show EDI he was OK. "Call Shepard, let him know what happened."

February 20, 2185
Omega Nebula
Amada System

"I'm sorry," Edgar said. "I thought EDI and I had managed to clear the code before we let her try it."

"Apparently not," Miranda snarked.

"Hey, leave them alone," Joker said. "EDI's all right. I looked at it afterward, and she's right. That code wasn't even accessible until we powered it up."

"From now on, we're not attaching anything new to the system until we've disassembled it and reassembled it from the ground up," Edgar said. "We're not going to let anything like this happen again."

"It shouldn't have happened the first time," Miranda grumbled.

"This code did not conform to any of the black-box Collector code the Illusive Man provided me," EDI said. "In fact, the trap did not conform to any code we have access to, in any form."

"All right," Shepard said, "we know where they took them. Joker, are you good for piloting through the Omega 4 relay?"

"I'll survive," Joker said. "Just don't ask me to get up and dance."

"Make the ship dance, yes," Shepard said. "Get up and dance yourself? No. We need you in one piece. Go let Mordin deal with your injuries, then set a course for the Omega 4 relay."

"Aye, aye, Commander," Joker said, pushing himself to his feet and staggering toward the elevator.

The sounds of mechanical assembly came from the far side of the hangar deck, from the area of Fred's workshop. Shepard crossed the deck, to find Tali and Nat watching Fred.

"You can't blame yourself!" Tali yelled. "The Collectors did this, not you!"

"If I hadn't gotten complacent, maybe we could have stopped this!" Fred yelled back. "I assumed that every door was open in that code! I assumed we could find all the traps without shutting it down cold and completely rewriting the code! I'm not going to make that mistake again!"

Shepard placed a hand on Tali's shoulder. When she looked up, he shook his head and said softly, "Let me talk to him. You're too close. It'll hurt you both if you say what needs to be said. I can say it without you being hurt."

"But – " Tali started, then sighed. "Be gentle, Shepard. Please? I love him, and it hurts to see him like this."

"He's not used to his friends getting hurt, I think," Shepard said. "And he's taking responsibility on himself, just like I would. I can work with that."

"Thank you," Tali said, then turned and walked away, her back stiff and shoulders hunched. Nat turned and followed her.

"You know," Shepard said, approaching Fred, "she'd follow you into Hell."

"But I don't want to take her there," Fred growled. At the moment, he was head-first inside an assembly that looked like a fighter's fuselage, without the outer skin. "Not until I can guarantee she won't get hurt."

"You can't do that," Shepard said. "You can't guarantee anyone won't get hurt. The world doesn't work that way."

"Don't you think I know that?" Fred demanded, backing out of the fuselage and turning to glare at Shepard. His face was streaked with tears. "I keep running it over in my mind. Everything we did, once we recovered the IFF. Not just the original, but the backup code. Every single step we took, every line of code, every single stage of testing." He threw a wrench into his tool chest. "We didn't find it! No matter how many times I go over it, it just ... was ... not ... there!" He sank onto his cot and rested his head in his hands. "How can I protect her if I can't even find hidden code?"

"Do you honestly think she wants to be protected?" Shepard asked. "You saw how she dove in with Nat. She won't even let him protect her. Do you honestly think she'll let you protect her?"

"It's not the same!" Fred protested. "He's her Companion! They're supposed to work together! He's not her ... damn it!"

"You're not, either," Shepard said. "At least, not as far as anyone on this ship knows. You're so busy trying to protect her, you haven't given her what she wants. You probably haven't even asked her what she wants, have you?"

"I – " Fred started, then shook his head, defeated. "No ... no, I haven't. I ... I know how dangerous it is for her. I know she could die from it. I love her, Shepard. Coming back to an empty ship just made me realize how scared I am that she'll be hurt, or killed ... or worse yet, that she'll be captured by the Collectors."

"Don't you think she's afraid of the same things?" Shepard asked. "Don't you think that she's afraid of losing you? Don't you think you'd be doing more if you let her in, stopped trying to protect her? Face it, Fred. We're on our way through the Omega 4 relay. None of us is likely to return. Are you really doing her any favors, by trying to protect her for a future she might not see?"

Fred stood, picked up the wrench he had thrown into his tool chest, and dove back into his fighter. "You're right. I frakked up. I need to finish this before we get to the relay."

"Do you really think you'll have time?" Shepard asked, looking at the parts scattered around Fred's workshop, most of which weren't attached to the fighter.

"Between the three of us, we'll get it done," Fred said. "Tali may need to sleep, but Nat and I can work straight through."

"Only if she lets you," Shepard chuckled, nodding to Tali as she and Nat passed him on their way into the workshop.

"That's right," Tali said. "Only if I let you. I'm not going to let you work yourself into the ground, right before we go where we may never return."

"I – uh, I mean," Fred stammered, "Tali! I ... I'm sorry. I ... can we talk? Please?"

"I'd like that very much," Tali said. "Nat, you know what Fred wants to do with the Valkyrie. Will you work on it while we ... talk?"

"Affirmative," Nat said, picking up a wrench and one of the parts, then moving to the fighter and beginning to work.

Shepard nodded, satisfied, and headed for the elevator.

February 21, 2185
Omega Nebula
Sahrabarik System

Tali leaned over the side of Fred's Valkyrie's cockpit and pressed her faceplate against his forehead, then whispered, "Last night was everything I hoped it would be, Fred. I love you, you crazy man, and don't you ever forget it."

"I won't," Fred said, reaching up to touch the side of her head. "I love you, Tali. Make sure you come back to me, you hear?"

"And you make sure you come back to me, too," Tali said. "I need to get to the engine room, so we have all the power Joker needs when we go through."

"I know, love," Fred said. "Show them what a quarra engineer can do."

Tali laughed softly, touched Fred's lips with the tips of her fingers, then dropped to the deck, unhooked the ladder from the side of the cockpit, and helped Nat push the tool chest out of the path between the Valkyrie and the hangar door.

"All set in the hangar," Tali transmitted. "On my way to engineering."

"Roger that," Joker said. "You sure about this, Fred?"

"Are you kidding?" Fred asked. "Don't forget how you found me. This Valkyrie will give me the extra shielding I need to cover your lard ass on the other side. Just remember to open the door as soon as we clear the relay."

"Lard ass, he says," Joker snorted. "I'll show you lard ass. Don't listen to him, sweetheart. You're still the sweetest ship in space."

"Engineering here," Tali said. "Ready whenever you are."

"Let's do it," Shepard said. "Take us through, Joker."

"Roger that, Commander," Joker said. "Approaching relay now."

In the hangar deck, Fred buttoned down his canopy and began the Valkyrie's start-up routine. In engineering, the sound of the core spooled up like the turbines on a jet, winding up for launch. In the cockpit, Shepard hit the controls for the heat shutters, and listened with approval as they locked closed with a solid "chunk".

"Relay in five ... four ..." Joker counted down.

"Charge is through the roof! The core's lighting up like a Christmas tree!" Jacob called from engineering, where he stood at the core's monitoring station.

"Three ... two ... one ... " Joker continued the countdown, and suddenly, the surge of acceleration hit, telling everyone on the ship they had entered the relay. A moment later, as the ship decelerated, Joker let out a yelp. "Holy shit! Everyone brace for evasive!"

The ship rolled, then climbed sharply.

"Ready for launch," Fred declared. A moment later, the hangar door began to swing down. The Valkyrie rose from its landing gear, then shot out the door. "Close the door, Joker. I'm clear. Frak! Who's the genius who put a mass relay in the accretion disk?"

"No idea, but it's been there a damned long time," Joker said. "Look at those ships! Some of them are so old, I don't recognize the designs."

"Not surprising, if this has been here for over 37 million years," Fred said. "Oooh. I just picked up some bandits powering up. Must have had them on picket duty."

"Yeah," Joker said. "I see them. The relay activating probably woke them up. Can you get them off my tail?"

"I'm on it," Fred said. He did a snap roll and dove on the nearest bandit. "Weird looking things. Like spherical camera rem – whoa! Make that lasers. EDI, you'd better have the Ravenfield running, or these things are going to carve you up like a Thanksgiving turkey."

Fred barrel rolled around the beam, shifting from fighter mode to battroid mode in mid roll. In battroid mode, he brought his gun pod up to his shoulder and snapped off a shot at the bandit. The particle beam punched through it with a satisfying explosion.

"Good news!" Fred called. "They're fragile as hell. One good hit with a laser or particle beam and they blow right up. Just don't let them tag you and you'll be fine."

"I've already taken several hits to the Ravenfield," EDI said. "The energy output of their lasers is high enough that they would have burned through our armor if they had hit."

"Do you have a fix on our destination yet?" Fred asked.

"I believe so," EDI said. "Jeff, do you agree?"

"I think so, EDI," Joker said. "Sending the coordinates now."

Fred turned to look in the direction Joker's coordinates indicated, and let out a low whistle. "OK, that's nasty looking. And it looks like they're sending a welcoming party out."

"That one's mine!" Joker snarled. "They took one Normandy away from me. Now I'm going to show them that this Normandy has fangs!"

"It's all yours," Fred said, snapping back to fighter mode and diving on another sphere, firing a missile as he dove. "I'll keep the gnats off your tail."

The missile lined up on the sphere's exhaust and shot in at full speed, struck, and detonated, generating a microscopic black hole against the sphere's surface. Everything within five meters of the point of impact collapsed into the black hole, then was released in an explosive thermal flash as the black hole evaporated.

"Excellent!" Fred growled, already swooping around to fire on another sphere.

The spheres responded by changing their focus from the Normandy to Fred, as if they were programmed with a rudimentary threat evaluation system that recognized him as the greater threat. Meanwhile, the Normandy swung around on the Collector ship as its cannons locked into firing position. The cannons fired, hurling a paired pulse of molten metal at the Collector ship at a decent fraction of the speed of light. Two heavy missiles followed close on the heels of the gun pulse, into the hole the gun had blown in the Collector's hull. One missile impacted almost instantly, while the second penetrated through to the ship's fusion plant. When the warheads detonated, each generated a microscopic black hole inside the ship. The combined explosions tore the ship apart in an explosion that blew pieces hundreds of kilometers from the point of detonation.

"Yes!" Joker yelled. "That's what you get for fucking with the Normandy!"

"Good job, Joker," Fred called. "I'm not picking up any more bandits. Are you?"

"Just a moment," Joker replied. "All clear. Let's find an entrance."

"Or make one," Fred said.

"Save your missiles," Shepard called. "If this place is built anything like the Collector's ship was, you can fly your fighter inside it. We could use the extra firepower."

"Works for me," Fred said, while working his panel. "I'll slave my sensors to EDI, and run up the side opposite you. Between us, we should be able to get some decent scans."

"It's a good thing we have your Ravenfield, Fred," EDI said. "The Collector ship's explosion would have taken down our barriers, and probably crashed our systems."

"Definitely a good thing," Fred said, as he steered up the side of the station. "Let's find an entrance and get inside. The sooner we have the crew back, the less I'll worry."

"You and me both," Shepard said. "EDI? What do we have?"

"There is a central chamber," EDI said, "larger than the Citadel, with several access passages that are large enough to fly the Normandy through. If we were to drop your team in the central chamber, you would have a better chance of finding any prisoners, without the need to fight your way to that point."

"I like this plan," Fred said. "I can fly cover while you're searching for prisoners, and Joker and EDI can keep the Normandy hot for a fast getaway."

"Good plan," Shepard said. "EDI, do you have any idea where the prisoners might be?"

"There is an area in the central chamber," EDI said, projecting an image of the Collector station from the starboard gunner's station, marking out locations as she spoke, "here, that is connected to a strange superstructure, here, by what appear to be massive pipes. It is radiating heat consistent with a large human population. Significantly, our previous encounters with Collectors all registered them as having a notably lower body heat."

"That's where we start, then," Shepard said. "Give Fred the coordinates."

"Got it," Fred said. "Let's do this."

Joker eased the Normandy along the hull of the station, then into the passage that the defending cruiser had exited from. Fred slid his fighter into the same passage, above and slightly ahead of the Normandy. The passage opened into an enormous chamber, that appeared to run the majority of the length of the station, with more than enough lighting, from panels scattered around and among pods mounted on every surface, as far as anyone in either ship could see.

Fred shifted his fighter into gerwalk mode and settled onto its feet, then let out a soft curse and jumped back up, shifting into battroid mode as he did. "EDI! I need your help! They're using disassemblers! Help me find the feed so I can cut it off! Everyone else, get out here and pull these people from these pods! Joker! Use the GARDIAN system to nail anything that tries to interfere!"

"Disassemblers?" Shepard asked.

"Nanobots," EDI answered, "designed to reduce raw material – in this case, the human prisoners – into its constituent parts, for re-use in other constructs."

Nat dropped from the Normandy's hangar door and ran toward the pods, with Tali about ten feet behind him.

"Disassemblers optimized for organic material will not affect synthetic structure," Nat said. "We will seal the feed. Fred will cut open pods. Teammates will extract prisoners."

"You heard the man," Shepard said. "Let's move!"

While the team ran from the Normandy to the pods, Nat climbed the structure they were attached to and crushed a pipe in his hands. Fred aimed his laser turret at the pods and burned across them, just deeply enough that the others could shatter the crystal faces with their hands and weapons.

"You came for us," Dr. Chakwas said, once she had caught her breath.

"No one gets left behind," Shepard said, giving her a warm smile. "Now get aboard ship – all of you."

"Gladly, Commander," Dr. Chakwas said.

A burst of three shots suddenly rang out, and Shepard's Ravenfield turned black. A moment later, Kelly's lifeless body sank to the floor, and Samara knelt to pluck Miranda's machine pistol from her dead hands.

"My apologies, Commander," Samara said gravely. "I did not move quickly enough to prevent her from taking the shot."

"But she managed to get my machine pistol without me knowing," Miranda said. "What did the Illusive Man have programmed into her?"

"I believe I can explain," Krios said. "She moved like an assassin. I wonder – is the Milagros Corporation a Cerberus front?"

"I believe so," Miranda said. "Why?"

"Several years ago," Krios said, "The Milagros Corporation asked for my help in compiling a database of drell physiology. Their stated purpose was to ensure that drell away from Kahje would have access to quality medical care. They took genetic samples, and extremely thorough brain scans."

"Damn him!" Miranda snarled. "Kelly was one of the few innocent people in Cerberus!"

"We can mourn her later," Shepard said. "Right now, we need to make sure everyone gets back on the Normandy, so we can finish this place off."

"We would appreciate haste," Nat said. "Our expedient blockage will fail, real soon now, and we can not be certain Ravenfields will protect teammates."

"Crank your fields up until they start emitting UV light," Fred said. "Nothing will get through them then."

"What happens then?" Jacob asked.

"The light comes from the field absorbing molecular binding energy," Fred said. "When the molecules split, the energy released ionizes the air in the energy bands that produce UV light. That means that anything that tries to get through the field is reduced to its constituent atoms. Even a nanobot can't do any harm in that state."

"What about a punch?" Grunt asked.

"If you punch something with your field turned up like that," Fred said, "you'll disintegrate whatever part of it you hit. I normally only run it that high on the leading edge of my wings, because it's so hard to control the risk of accidentally bumping into something I don't want to damage. I figure that's not a major problem in here."

"You got that damned right," Zaeed laughed. "So let's do some damage!"

Nat remained where he was, holding the pipe closed with his hands, until every other person was either inside the Normandy or surrounded by an ultraviolet-emitting field. He dropped back to the floor and joined Tali. When he released the pipe, the crumpled end blew out, and the air was filled with a fog of nanobots, which quickly cleared as the fog swirled around the team and was disintegrated on contact.

The team returned to the Normandy, which took off and started up the length of the chamber, Joker following EDI's guidance and the very visible tubing that ran along the ceiling.

"Fred?" Tali asked over their private channel. "That's not the highest setting on the field, is it?"

"No, it's not," Fred said. "You can turn it up high enough to absorb all bosons, not just gravitons."

"All bosons?" Tali asked, shocked. "This isn't just a defensive field, it's a weapon!"

"That's why I only give it to people I have to rely on," Fred said. "And that's why I have only given that particular secret to four people. Five, once you share it with Nat. Cal figured it out on his own, as soon as his math progressed that far, and MJ's too young to be able to use that function properly, so her babysitter's locked it out until she's older."

"Your son, Cal?" Tali asked, surprised. "But I thought you said he was only eight years old!"

"He is," Fred said, then chuckled proudly. "He was doing quantum equations by the time he was four. The math he's doing these days is so far over my head, only Gudrun can tutor him."

"Who's Gudrun?" Tali asked. "Oh, wait, Shepard looks like he's going to say something."

"I understand why," Fred said, switching to gerwalk mode and hovering above the Normandy, looking up at the destination of the tubing with a mixture of awe and horror.

"We're going to have to set their reactor to blow, if we want to be sure we've destroyed this place," Shepard said.

"We'd better kill the Reaper first," Fred said. "If my readings are right, that thing's body may not be complete, but its brain is. It could drag itself out of here if we don't make sure it's dead."

"How many missiles do you have left?" Shepard asked.

"Just a sec ...," Fred said. "I have sixty-two left."

"All singularities?" Shepard asked.

"Forty singularities," Fred said, "and twenty-two hellfire – I mean, antimatter."

"Perfect," Shepard said. "We'll rig the reactor, while you turn that thing into scrap."

"Works for me," Fred said. "I'm seeing incoming platforms, so you might want to take some extra guns, or fire up the GARDIAN, or both."

"GARDIAN system active," EDI said. "Jeff and I will cover you."

Fred switched to battroid mode and burned through the Reaper's supports with his gun pod. Once it fell free, he switched to missile targeting and began launching pairs of missiles after the falling Reaper, while setting his laser turret to fire at any incoming Collectors.

"Reactor's set!" Shepard called. "Everyone, back to the ship! Fred! Make sure the Reaper's dead, then get out of the blast radius!"

"Roger that," Fred called back. "Oops!" He saw the Reaper attempting to climb back up to platform level, and fired a burst from his gun pod, blowing one hand off, followed by a six-pack of missiles.

"We are out of here!" Joker called, as he kicked the Normandy's drives up to full and blasted out the nearest passage to space.

Fred zoomed his targeting sensors in on the Reaper's chest and launched the rest of his missile load, switched to fighter mode, and pushed the throttles to the firewall. He caught up with the Normandy just moments before the Collector base vanished in a ball of light.

"Hangar is ready to receive," Joker said.

"I'm coming aboard," Fred said, as he lined up in front of the hangar and backed off, letting the Normandy scoop him up. "Thanks, Joker."