By the time we finished our jump back to the relay near Omega and I went down to check on Thane he was back in the life support room, up and dressed as stylishly as ever. His breath came roughly still but some of the new medical supplies had helped to ease his laboring lungs. He ran his hands through my hair and kissed me thoroughly while I wallowed in my disappointment that he was no longer nearly nude and in a bed.
“You appear to have recovered from our adventures on Zorya. I fear that my days of stealth are over, however,” he joked. “My targets would hear me through the walls.”
How sweet he was, trying to reassure me despite how obviously he had deteriorated in a single day. His face looked drawn, serious despite his light tone. Had it really been so short a time since he was dancing destruction through the geth on Haestrom, laughing? His quick fluidity had slowed to a smooth grace in the past few weeks. It was clear that the Kepral’s Syndrome had spread far beyond his lungs. Guilt stabbed at me. I’d been hauling him around the galaxy, thrusting him into situations that would only worsen his condition, and he had actually thanked me for doing so. He’d saved my life and risked his for me countless times and all I had to offer him was death.
I held him as tightly as I dared. “I need you to be careful, Thane,” I said, swallowing tears yet again. “Promise me. Promise you’ll be back here with me after we destroy these bastards.”
He held my face in his hands and pressed his lips against my forehead, each of my cheeks in turn, the tip of my nose, and finally my mouth. “I promise, siha,” he answered solemnly. I wished I’d asked him more about his language so that I could have a name for him as beautiful as his for me.
Both of us knew keeping that promise was essentially out of his control. It calmed me, though, to have told him at least a little of how I felt and to have him so clearly accept what I offered. Had there been time I would have hauled him to his cot then and there but I suspected that Thane, ever composed and deliberate, had never heard of a quickie. Instead, we made our way to the briefing room so that the whole team could discuss strategy while EDI and Joker performed the half-blind calculations that might allow us to live through the coming jump.
There wasn’t any way to prepare for what would happen. We tossed ideas around and considered some what ifs but as soon as Joker announced that we were approaching the relay I kicked everyone free and headed for the bridge. Thane and Garrus both came with me and I was thankful to have my closest friends around me. I was terrified, though I wouldn’t allow it to show. The Omega Four relay swam into view. Most relays pulsed a familiar, biotic blue, a color with which we’d all become comfortable. The mysterious machine we faced, however, glowed a diseased purple-red, a threatening bruise of color that clearly warned us away. I’d half hoped that the IFF handshake would turn it the reassuring cobalt of the others but that didn’t happen. The roiling brilliance grabbed us and threw us to the heart of the galaxy.
I doubt anyone breathed as we were decelerated on the other side. Then we made up for that breathless moment hyperventilating as Joker threaded the Normandy through nigh-invisible gaps between the broken, blasted, and otherwise destroyed ships that choked the space around the relay. It must keep a clear field in the debris around itself but the landing distance was incredibly short. I reminded myself to kiss Joker on the cheek for being good enough to not only make the jump that accurately but to react so quickly to the thousands of looming threats. We’d upgraded the shields and the hull but it was his skill that squeaked us through the minefield.
No sooner had we cleared the bulk of the mess than sentinels sprang to life around us. It looked like the Collectors were not relying on the debris field alone to knock out those lucky enough to survive the trip. Their lasers forced us back into the wreckage and a high-speed game of chase ensued. Between our weapons and more of Joker’s unorthodox piloting we finally managed to destroy the last of them. Our shields were all but depleted and the hull scored in many places but we were still flying. EDI confirmed that the worst of the damage had been superficial. We cruised to the object of our collective hatred, a bizarre structure that looked as though random asteroids had been strung together with titanium beams and the spit of some enormous nest-making insect.
Sliding from a dock in the behemoth was none other than our friend, the Collectors’ ship, according to EDI the very one that had killed me and then kidnapped my second crew. That fucker was going down if I had to launch myself out of the airlock and attack it with a hand knife. Happily, I didn’t need to: Garrus showed us all the value of the hours he’d spent calibrating our new Thanix cannon when EDI sliced the damned thing to ribbons as Joker spun us around its flanks. I cursed it colorfully the entire time, willing us out of the path of its weapons as we dodged and weaved about the ponderous thing.
I hadn’t noticed that I’d grabbed Thane’s hand at some point and was crushing it in my anger. He made a small noise of protest as the other ship broke apart before us. My frustration at being unable to assault the ship myself broke as I apologized for hurting him. He really needed both hands to be effective inside the base and there I was, trying to break his fingers. My own hand was sore from squeezing so tightly. With the other I punched Garrus on the shoulder in thanks and congratulations. The look of satisfaction on his face cheered me.
We scraped to a landing on the surface of the base, too damaged in the fight to maintain our distance. The Normandy hadn’t been designed to land rather than dock. My whole ship was leaning to port and EDI poured a stream of damage reports into my omni-tool. I cut it off with a curt, “Can you fix it?” I wanted the bottom line: could we still get back home? EDI reassured me that the supplies we’d taken on in Illium had included plating and replacement power cells that she and Legion could use to repair any hull breaches and restore the shields, given a few hours. While I could have used Legion’s precise marksmanship with me it was more important that everyone know we had a ship in which we could return. We needed that hope to sustain us.
I ordered Grunt to release Miranda and everyone but Joker piled out of the Normandy's canted airlock. We made our way to the nearest opening as EDI scanned the base for our best attack route. There was no real way to know where my crew lay in the massive structure but the time had been relatively short and we could hope that they hadn't been killed outright and tossed aside like those on the ship we'd cleared weeks ago. With any luck we'd interrupted the Collectors on their way to do whatever it was they did with the humans in their pods and they'd be along a main path. Of course, with any luck they wouldn’t have been there in the first place.
The team split and reformed as we followed the network of corridors along the circuitous path EDI had mapped to the heart of the structure. I sent Tali crawling through the ducts to hack locks, racing to stay ahead of her to keep valves open before she cooked behind one. We slaughtered Collectors wholesale, wiping out every one of the creatures we found. There would be no prisoners taken on this enterprise. It was an exercise in vengeance and a bitter satisfaction flowed through my team as we progressed. Then we came together in an enormous chamber filled with pods hanging from the walls and strewn about the floor. In the one just to the left of the door stood Yeoman Chambers, her eyes open and her mouth screaming silence.