Describing the members of any species as "stone faced" could not be more applicable to anyone than the turians, Shepard thought. Because of their physiology and temperament they were stoicism personified. But Captain Lorian's non-reaction to Mordin's briefing bordered on catatonic. His asari companion was only partially successful in keeping her emotions in check, giving small expressions of shock and horror as the salarian described the fates of the abducted human colonists and the ultimate purpose behind the collectors. The Council representative was clearly worried by what she was hearing. Her turian counterpart only looked bored.
That was no fault of Mordin's. Every slide, every display was linked to backing documentation from over a year of non-stop research done in Normandy's lab by the obsessive scientist. But he was also a trained thespian, and even Shepard found himself getting caught up in their struggle as if seeing it for the first time. There were videos, holos, and audio recordings from Freedom's Progress and Horizon, data and analytics from battles with the collector cruiser and from within, and perhaps most tantalizing of all, the secret of what lay behind the Omega Four relay.
Around the briefing room, and for the half-dozen officers watching and listening from both the human and turian fleets, horror quickly turned to astonishment as Mordin revealed the real power behind the collectors. Shepard knew this was the pivotal moment on which judgment would be passed. He winced inwardly each time the professor used the term "reaper," as the name had become synonymous with insane conspiracy theories and cosmic ghost stories, the mere mention of which ordinarily got the speaker dismissed immediately as a crackpot or subversive.
Fortunately, Commodore Rehme and his staff officer were already predisposed to listen thanks to the influence of Admiral Hackett. Rehme was late middle aged with a full head of gray hair, still as lean and sharp as a man in his twenties, with a furrowed brow and prominent teeth that gave him the impression of wearing a permanent grimace. There was now genuine shock and anger at what he was seeing, and Shepard could see the Commodore was ready to do something about the threat, even if he didn't know what.
Captain Lorian, on the other hand, still sat quietly with almost no expression, making only occasional notes his datapad, or spending minutes typing out longer messages. Nearly an hour had passed, and he had not said a word.
Shepard watched the turian carefully while the words of Councilor Sparatus echoed repeatedly in his head. Ah, yes... Reapers. If Lorian decided to channel his representative's obtuse behavior, Shepard would have to act quickly to blunt its effect on the others. He could tell the seed of truth had sprouted - he would not let Lorian salt the earth with doubts.
Meanwhile, Tali sat quietly at the corner of the table on the crew side, nearest the door, her arms in her lap below the table. One of the good things about being trapped in a suit was that she could manipulate her omnitool by haptic feedback alone with the results projected in her visor. As she suspected, her role in the briefing lasted less than five minutes near the beginning, and she had not been called upon since.
So she silently monitored and made adjustments to the ship via a remote connection to her console, kept tabs on the geth's continued repairs on the ship, and otherwise busied herself with tasks she'd rather be doing... and one that she was dreading. Every few seconds she opened her instant messenger for an update from Doctor Chakwas about Gabby. She nearly jumped in her seat when a new chat window materialized before her eyes.
gvakarian: Shepard just asked you a question. You going to answer?
Startled, Tali looked around the table. Mordin was recapping the destructive power of Sovereign, and Shepard was focused so intently on the turian captain she half expected him to leap out of his chair and tackle him. No one in the room was paying any attention to her, except for Garrus, who sat two seats down past Legion and Samara. He expression showed he was exceptionally pleased with himself. His hands were also below the table, trying to shield the warm glow of his own omni. So he wanted to play, did he? She activated the developer interface on her omni, patched together a small bit of code, and pressed execute.
Untszzz-untszz-untszz... A loud trance beat filled the room, followed by a wicked synth riff that provided a startling counterpoint to the visual of the reaper Sovereign merging with the central spire of the Citadel as the wards closed around it. Mordin looked about for the source of the sudden accompaniment, as did everyone else at the table.
Garrus slapped frantically at his omnitool, which pulsed brightly with every beat with a spectrum of colors and patterns that would have made any raver envious. He pounded at the power and reset buttons to no avail, as both the Alliance officers and Citadel representatives stared at him. Mordin gave an annoyed cough and paused his presentation.
Shepard wore a thin smile, but his eyes conveyed death was close at hand as he spoke through clenched teeth. "You want to turn that down a little?"
"Uhh, sorry," Garrus stammered as he tried to power down his omnitool. He briefly pondered excusing himself to deal with the malfunctioning device. "It's uh... I don't know why..."
Tali watched as anger began to build around the room towards Garrus, and cursed herself for being so soft. She pressed another key, and the turian's omnitool fell silent.
Garrus lowered it sheepishly back under the table. "Sorry. Not sure what happened there."
Captain Lorian was nonplussed. "Fire in the Courtyard?"
"Uh, yes sir," Garrus said, equally surprised that the stoic captain recognized the song. "How'd you guess?"
Lorian's expression turned sour. "My granddaughter loves Fleet and Flotilla. Watches it incessantly. Continue, Professor."
Garrus closed his eyes and sighed, which kept him from seeing Shepard's angry scowl, and Tali's sympathetic shrug, as if to say "what are you going to do?"
Mordin coughed once more and picked up where he'd left off. "If the Citadel had fallen, or if it does fall, estimate isolation of every solar system connected by mass relay within minutes. Complete disruption of relay transit and communication network would make defense impossible. Defeat, inevitable. Galactic extinction a certainty as isolated pockets of resistance are wiped out."
"But they can't come back," Rehme said hopefully, "As long as we hold the Citadel. Is that an accurate statement?"
"Unknown," Mordin said. "Other invasion vectors possible. Unwise to assume Citadel only entry point. Omega Four intended destination for larval reaper at collector base. Could be others. Reapers could potentially assume control of individual relays during transit, cut off key hubs. Invasion by alternate route more time consuming as each system puts up resistance, but outcome ultimately the same."
Enlea studied the stellar map in front of her. "So you believe the reapers can control individual relays?"
"No, only hypothesis. But not impossible. Reapers built relay network. Logical to assume possess power to control them. Substantiated by reaper IFF ability to pass through Omega Four."
The asari looked between the two rival commanders. "It sounds like we've still got a lot of theory to work through."
Rehme sounded slightly irritated at the diplomat. "It wasn't a theory that wiped out your fleet, was it Miss T'vari? Professor, even though they might have other routes other than Omega Four, can we do anything to slam them shut, like the protheans did with the Citadel?"
"Unknown," Mordin said. "Too many variables, too few constants. Not enough data to establish patterns."
Rehme grunted. "Then you probably don't know the answer to this, either, but I'm going to ask anyway. How much time do we have until they come back?"
Mordin sniffed. "Also unknown. State of larval reaper and continued abduction of humans indicates preparatory phase not yet complete. However, also unknown: reaper reaction to loss of collector base. Will no doubt alter their timetable substantially. Even accelerate it."
Shepard stood and walked next to Mordin at the head of the table. "Which means we need to start preparing now. It could be days, it could be months, but the reapers will come back. And as of right now, we have no way of stopping them. So far, no government body has been willing to take action."
Enlea held her index fingers pointed in front of her mouth. "And you've relayed this information to the Council?"
Shepard fought back the sarcasm building inside of him. Apparently, a reaper sticking its head into the presidium chambers wasn't enough to convince them. But It would do no good to antagonize his only contact with the Citadel. "Repeatedly. We just acquired this intel on the collector base before we came back, but the Council is well aware of the threat facing all of us."
Enlea looked to her left for some reaction from Lorian, but he just stared silently at the holo display, his mind elsewhere. She cleared her throat. "Commander Shepard, I will be happy to present these findings to my superiors. It would be irresponsible not to."
"But...?" Shepard sighed.
The asari's eye's fluttered as she tried to come up with the right phrasing. "You have to understand, your reputation with the Council right now is spotty at best. The fact that all of this intelligence is coming from a dubious source," she pointed to the Cerberus logo painted on the wall, "makes everything you say highly suspect."
Rehme sat back in his chair. "Forget it, Shepard. Don't waste your time. Give me everything you got, and I'll make sure it gets to the right people on our side. These bastards might not be interested in saving themselves, but damn if we'll let them take us down with them."
"You know," Elnea shook her head at the Commodore without looking at him, "that's precisely the attitude that cost humanity its seat on the Council in the first place."
"With all due respect, ma'am, the only human seat that matters is the one the Council can kiss with all six of their lips, or mandibles or whatever the hell you have."
Garrus tapped out a message to Tali on his omni, apparently unafraid of repercussion. gvakarian: Well this meeting is over.
Tali shook her head in amazement, too angry to respond. Just like before, nothing they had accomplished was going to make a bit of difference. It was a wonder Shepard tried at all.
Enlea scowled and stared at the table in front of her. "We came here in good faith to listen to what you had to say. Please give us the same consideration that we will do what is best, especially with a threat of this magnitude." Her eyes drifted up to the Justicar across from her, who watched her with obvious disappointment, then over to Shepard. "Look... I believe you, Commander. I really do. What you've shown us frightens me down to my very soul. But the Council won't just take your word for it. We can't. We need independent validation. That's not asking too much, is it?"
Shepard's reaction was surprisingly mild. "Not at all. That's exactly why I invited you here." From his omnitool, he summoned a new image on the holographic display: a complex, three dimensional schematic appeared. "This is the key to the Omega Four relay. The reaper IFF. As Mordin told you, this is the only way a ship can pass through unharmed. As of right now, we possess the only one." He gave the delegates a meaningful glance. "But it doesn't have to stay that way."
Rehme and Enlea sat up sharply in their chairs. The Normandy crew members all looked at the Commander with surprise.
Even Lorian looked at Shepard for the first time. "Are you saying that you'd be willing to part with this technology?"
"I'll do you one better," Shepard said. "I'll give you the ability to fabricate your own."
While the others in the room still seemed stunned at the idea that Shepard was thinking of divulging the secret of passing through Omega Four, Lorian seemed unimpressed. "Under what conditions?"
"That you use it," Shepard said, crossing his arms. "And I mean right now. I don't want this filed away, or sent off in a report as an attachment, or left to die in some debate chamber." Shepard touched a key and the holo switched to a recorded view of the collector base drifting in its debris-filled shield. "I want you to go back and secure that base. And don't send one ship, either. Go in force. We irradiated it as we left, but there could be stragglers or other ships that weren't docked when it blew. One collector ship already followed us back. There may be more, and you've seen what they're capable of. And that debris field is swarming with oculus. Go in with enough firepower to take them out."
The briefing room fell silent after Shepard's monologue except for the quiet whoosh from the room's air vents. he looked around for any reaction.
Lorian finally spoke. "And which fleet do you envision carrying out your wishes?"
Shepard shrugged. "Both of them. Alliance and Citadel fleets need to go together as part of a joint operation."
Rehme's laugh was loud enough to make his aide jump. "You can't be serious. I know you're Hackett's golden boy, but you honestly expect the Alliance to-"
"No," Shepard held up his hand. From the look on Rehme's face, he wasn't used to being interrupted. "I don't expect it. I'm demanding it. You want to see what's on the other side, you do it together. Because if we're going to survive, all of us, that's the only way we're going to do it. There's no other way. I know you don't trust each other, and you don't trust me. But you've seen what one collector ship can do to a task force. You've seen what one reaper did to our combined fleets at the Citadel. Imagine what a hundred, or a thousand of them will do."
Shepard pointed to the collector base, tilted on its axis in in the hellish red-orange glare of the singularity beyond. "This is their foothold into our galaxy. We can't let them take it back. And if that's not a good enough reason for you, consider this: Cerberus has the same data on the IFF in hand. The Illusive Man will get his people to that base any way he can, as fast as he can. If you want to stop Cerberus, you need to get there first, with as many ships as possible."
"Jesus, Shepard," Rehme gasped. "You gave the IFF to them? What the hell were you thinking?"
"I didn't give them anything," Shepard snapped back. "They gave it to me. While the Alliance and Council sat on their asses for three goddamn years doing nothing, Cerberus acted. When human colonies started disappearing and the Alliance did nothing to stop it, Cerberus gave me in command of this ship so that I could. By all rights they deserved whatever technological treasures they might find at the other end of Omega Four. All I had to do was stand by and let them take it."
Lorian looked unimpressed. "So why didn't you? Why are you turning against your own kind?"
"Because they're not my kind!" Shepard wanted nothing more than to show Lorian his right cross. "I hate Cerberus. I hate everything they stand for. But they were the only ones who would help me. The Alliance ignored me because it put them at odds with the Council. I went to the Council, I begged the Council to listen but they wouldn't!" By this time, Shepard was shouting, his face bright red, veins throbbing beneath his temples. Tali looked over at Garrus, who looked back at her with an expression of quiet rage. All of the frustration and helplessness they'd all experienced since the nightmare began three years before radiated from Shepard as if he were biotic, and he wasn't even finished.
"My kind," Shepard repeated and pointed to his friends at the table. He walked slowly behind them, gesturing to each as he spoke, never taking his eyes from the turian Captain. "Let me tell you about 'my kind.' It's a salarian, one of the finest minds in the galaxy, who spends his every waking moment investigating our enemy, but who will stop in the middle of a firefight to administer aid to an innocent bystander hit in the crossfire. It's a quarian who has quite literally saved the galaxy twice now, who can't go into a parts store without the owners watching to see if she steals something. A Justicar who set aside a code she's held for longer than any of us have been alive to save my species, that no one even knew existed fifty years ago. It's a geth whose entire population is a sworn enemy of all things organic who sought peaceful contact when all we want to do is destroy them. That hole in his chest? The collectors didn't do that. We did."
Shepard stopped behind Garrus, who now looked down at the table. "And a turian... the best damned soldier, one of the finest leaders I've ever seen, whose given up career, family, everything, to champion hopeless cause just because it's the right thing to do." Shepard shook his head. "And that's just the people in this room. This ship, this crew, all of them, regardless of who they are, what they are, or where they are from, have one thing in common. They'll die for each other. I've seen it every day that we've been together. And regardless of what happens today with you, I know that's what I'll see from them tomorrow. That's 'my kind,' Captain."
Lorian and Shepard stared at each other. Commodore Rehme and and Enlea both shifted uncomfortably in their chairs, unsure of what to say. They looked into the eyes of the array of aliens across from them, each looking back with equal measures of expectation and sadness in their eyes, giving silent countenance to Shepard's words, either to embarrassed or humble to acknowledge Shepard's praise.
The turian captain returned Shepard's gaze intently. He leaned back in his seat. "Commander Shepard, I can't speak for Commodore Rehme, but I do not have the authority to authorize what you ask."
Shepard's jaw clenched visibly.
Lorian kept his voice and demeanor respectful. "But I would consult with higher command and request immediate action if you would permit direct contact."
Shepard swallowed thickly. "EDI, give Captain Lorian access to our communication network."
"Yes, Commander," EDI responded from nowhere.
"Captain?" Enlea turned to Lorian. Their orders had been to observe if Shepard's capture could not be assured. Lorian was now taking matters into his own hands.
Lorian kept his focus on Shepard. "I have been presented actionable intelligence on an immediate threat that endangers both the Hierarchy and Citadel Space. If it proves untrue, I bear the responsibility for raising a false alarm. But I don't think that's the case. Commodore, do you agree?"
Rehme's expression was skeptical, but he found himself nodding in spite of himself. As the turian had said, there was too much to risk by not acting. "Shepard's got friends in high places in the Alliance. I don't think I'll have to sell it. Let's see what we can come up with."
Shepard let out a long breath. His face was flushed, his eyes ringed black from exhaustion. "Right. Let's take a break so you can start making inquiries, give everyone a chance to stretch their legs and take a biobreak if necessary. We'll resume in ten minutes." He then stood and walked rigidly out of the room, ignoring the upturned faces of his crew as he strode toward the door. Tali looked at toward Garrus, who nodded silently, and they both followed Shepard into the corridor. Behind them, the Alliance officers and Council delegates started making calls to their respective headquarters over EDI's newly opened channels.
Tali and Garrus caught up to Shepard in Mordin's lab. He was pacing back and forth in front of the research station, eyes closed, his hands behind his head. Tali took a step toward him and stopped, looking back to Garrus, who could only shake his head. In their time together, they had never seen the Shepard in less than complete control, always composed and focused when witnessing a reaper fetus arising from the depths of the collector base as if he were getting a supply report from Miranda. But now, he looked to be on the edge of a breakdown.
"Shepard?" Garrus asked quietly.
Shepard's eyes fluttered open and he took a deep breath, and he immediately reverted to the Commander they had known for years. Unafraid, confident, unconcerned. "I swear," he told them, "the second Lorian made one single air-quote, I was going reach in and rip his gizzard out from his throat."
Garrus chucked, relieved. "I would have held him down for you."
Tali pointed down to the knife in her ankle sheath. "No need. I would have gutted him before you had the chance." Before she could stop herself, Tali rushed forward and wrapped her arms around him and wrapped her arms around him. As bad as it was being thought of as paranoid or delusional by the populace at large for believing in the reapers, it was always worse to see how they treated Shepard who had given so much of his life, and his life itself to fight them. Of course, she didn't mind in the least when he returned the hug whole-heartedly, swaying gently back and forth as the three of them laughed together. He reached his hand out to Garrus, still holding onto Tali. Garrus grasped it and gave it a firm shake.
"Hate to be the sour voice of reality," Garrus said, "but what's the Illusive Man going to think of you giving up their secrets?"
Shepard looked thoughtful for a moment, then shrugged with his arm around Tali. "Can't say I care. He knew what he was getting when he signed me up."
Garrus nodded but inside felt his stomach burn. So far, Shepard had done a masterful job of dancing with the devil. Now he had just openly spat in his face. Although Garrus couldn't disagree with his reasoning, or be happier that Shepard was finally making a move away from the terrorist group. Friendly or not, it wasn't a relationship that could be maintained.
As far as Shepard was concerned, he really didn't care at that moment. He felt too good. It hadn't been the Council, it hadn't even been policymakers of any sort who finally believed, just commanders in the field operating on the intelligence presented to them. But that was enough. Someone was finally listening.
The hatch to the briefing room opened and Shepard entered alone after having dismissed Garrus and Tali. Garrus hated meetings in general, but Tali practically bowled them both over on her way to the infirmary to be there when Gabriella Daniels was awakened. He offered to go with her, but she turned him down. More than ever, Shepard realized the engineering staff were her people.
Those thoughts disappeared almost immediately with the flurry of activity in the briefing room. Everyone present, except for Samara and Legion, held datapads in their hands and spoke into communicators, looking up to announce the arrival of another resource to the virtual meeting. The main holo display showed representatives from organizations across all branches of every military force across Citadel and Alliance space.
"Professor Solus," a salarian announced over the main channel. "This is Major Salamen, Third Naval Security Group. I don't know if you remember, but we met two years ago at a conference on genetic alteration and biocontaminates."
Mordin smiled. "Of course, Major. Pleased you could attend. Main briefing will begin in twelve minutes. Sending agenda now."
Shepard noticed Samara and Legion waiting patiently at the table. He beckoned them toward the door, and as they approached he waved them through. "Thank you both," he whispered as they passed. "You're dismissed." After they left, he watched and listened.
Captain Lorian pointed toward the holo display. "I have Admiral Scalletia, Chief of Naval Research joining. Good day, Admiral."
"Thank you, Captain," said a female turian. "Who else do we have on the line?"
Shepard smiled as a familiar voice broke over the channel. "Admiral Scalletia, Steve Hackett. Glad you could make it."
"Hello, Steven. Should have known this was your party. So, you decided your pension was worth risking talking to the enemy, or did you just miss me that much?"
Shepard grinned at the familiarity between the two flag officers, and at the rapid change of attitude from Rehme and his assistant towards Enlea and Lorian, and vice versa. It was almost as if there had been no schism at all between the Alliance and Council as they worked to bring as many officers as they could into the briefing. The smile faded as he remembered this wasn't the case anywhere else but on the Normandy.
But he thought of the fights between the members of his own crew, of the times when the likes of Legion and Tali, Grunt and Mordin, Jack and Miranda had almost come to blows, but gladly put their lives on the line to save someone they would have gladly killed before getting to know them. He took a seat at the side of the table and as he watched the commotion around him, a strange smile spread across his face. If only the entire galaxy could fit into this one ship..