"So with the quarian Conclave unable to produce a candidate with a clear majority, the Admiralty Board remains deadlocked and the peace process appears to have stalled once more. Whichever of the two leading candidates is approved will no doubt shape the future of the entire Migrant Fleet, as the new member of the Admiralty Board will either break the deadlock and put the quarian people on a path to reconciliation with their former servants, or put them on a hard-line path that could conceivably lead them to war.
"The issue may be rendered moot, however, as the geth have not attempted contact with either the Alliance or quarians since the security breach aboard the SSV Shenyang ten days ago. As a result, many are beginning to speculate that these peace negotiations aren't simply delayed, but in fact have ended before they've even started. For Future Content News, this is Eric Dahlberg, reporting from the Assembly Garden on the quarian liveship Rayya in the Raheel-Leyya system."
Eric shook his helmet against his head with frustration, making his vid tech grin at him. "Goddamn helmets. Makes me sound like I'm talking in a bathroom. Could you see me through the faceplate OK? There weren't too many reflections, were there?"
The other human held up a thumb. As typical for news personalities, Eric represented an idealized representation of attractiveness for his species: tall, with a lean, sharp build, his short brown hair perfectly coiffed beneath the helmet, with bright blue eyes that always captured whatever ambient light happened to be present, complimenting perfect white teeth for a dazzling smile that could be turned on or off like a switch.
In his own estimation, he was far too attractive to be hidden behind the mandatory envirosuit, worn not to protect him from the environment, but to protect the environment from him. He would have to see about doing more segments from aboard the Shenyang where the suit was unnecessary. He struggled again against the helmet blocking his peripheral vision. All of the tiered seats near the center of the chamber were vacant, with the last scattered quarian spectators slowly ambling toward the main exit.
He shook his head. "This is supposed to be their Parliament. Looks more like the back lot of the shipping warehouse I used to work at as a teenager."
"At least we got some elbow room here," his assistant said. Firaz Saxena was a camera tech in his early thirties with unkempt hair and a scraggly beard with a gut that came from spending too much time playing video games. But no one knew their way around camera drones like Friaz. "Could you believe how many of them there were on the way in? Man, the quarians really pack 'em in, don't they?"
Eric tugged at the shoulders of his suit where it was pinching his arm. "Probably why they all wear these suits. So they don't have to smell each other."
"Yeah, no shit. Hold up... One's coming this way."
Always at the ready, Eric straightened and turned so that he and the approaching subject would have the best coverage from the overhead lights. Friaz released one of his drones into the air to provide coverage for 3D and reaction shots. The quarian approaching them wore a highly polished suit made of gold scale with a leather strap across one shoulder that glittered as he walked. He was flanked by a pair of aides or security guards. As usual, the only thing visible behind the quarian's mask was a pair of glowing eyes.
From his briefings, Eric recognized the man in gold immediately. "Admiral Koris," he said. The quarian was obviously positioning himself to be interviewed, but protocol dictated that the reporter make the first move. "Eric Dahlberg, Future Content. Could I have a word with you sir?"
"Oh," the Admiral said, feigning surprise. He stood straight, barely coming up to Eric's chin. "Of course. Future Content, you say? Pardon my asking, but where is Miss Wong? It was my understanding that she would be conducting these interviews for the duration of the talks."
"Ah, she's been recalled to cover the situation at the Omega Four Relay in Sahrabarik, sir."
Koris cocked his head to one side.
Eric hated when interviewees played dumb, but hated it more when they felt they were being short-changed because FCC's star reporter wasn't asking the questions. "The task force getting ready to head through to see what's on the other side, sir. After the Normandy returned."
"Ah, yes. The Normandy," Koris nodded, clasping his hands behind his back. "Miss Wong would have done well to remain here and saved herself the travel, because the Normandy will be delivering the geth delegate to this very room in the near future. I believe the presence of the geth will end the stalemate in the Conclave rather quickly, and you will have quite a lot to cover, young man."
"The Normandy is coming here? I would have expected to hear that during today's conference."
"Well, it's not public knowledge just yet," Koris said confidently. "And all the details are not finalized. But Commander Shepard has a long standing, close relationship with the quarian people. In fact, his chief engineer, Tali'Zorah, was born of the very ship on which we are standing. It's a pairing that has solidified the bond between our two great species."
"Tali'Zorah nar Rayya," Eric said, consulting his omnitool. "She now has the name... Tali'Zorah vas Normandy. Is that correct?"
Koris stiffened visibly. "Well, her name reflects her status on the ship on which she currently serves, as it does for many quarians..."
"Isn't it unusual for quarians to change their adult names, even if they transfer to another ship?"
"It's not unheard of, but it does happen on rare occasion..."
Eric kept a serious face but knew instantly that Koris was wasn't interested sharing information, only spouting off for the camera. With each passing day, interest in the talks had been fading, especially with the events unfolding around the Omega Four relay. And each day, Admiral Koris seemed more desperate to try and generate interest. He was clearly just name dropping now.
The other three admirals on the dais were still gathered around talking to one another but would be leaving soon. He needed to end this if he was going to have a chance with them. "According to our sources, Tali'Zorah was exiled for treason just under two months ago by the Admiralty Board. Can you elaborate on this?"
In the unblinking stare of the camera drone, Admiral Zaal'Koris vas Kwib Kwib suddenly found himself at a loss for words, with the human reporter capturing every second of akward silence in high-definition, 3D detail.
On the Assembly Garden's raised dais, Admiral Daro'Xen vas Moreh watched Koris' exchange with the human reporter with disgust. Han'Gerrel vas Neema stood next to her, gripping the rail in his hands. "Pandering to the humans again," he muttered. "He doesn't even wait for them to approach anymore."
"It was a mistake to let them on board in the first place," Xen said sharply and eyed the pair of quarian marines standing by the two humans.
When news broke that the geth were attempting to make peace with their creators the proposed meeting became a galactic sensation. Journalists, reporters and adventurers flocked to the Leyya system, eager to catch a glimpse of the mysterious mechs that had caused everyone such distress. That the quarians had been fighting the geth for centuries didn't seem to matter.
The flotilla's Navy managed to turn back the intruders, and later with the help of the Alliance navy blockaded the route from the relay to the fleet. The aliens could not be prevented from entering the system, but so far, all attempts by outsiders to approach the fleet itself had been thwarted. Double and triple patrol time was still the norm around this second, smaller fleet massed around the Raheel-Leyya relay, and the strain was beginning to show.
Then followed round after round of calls from officials and public relations specialists, jamming the comm systems with requests for interviews or offers to help mediate by politicians looking to enhance their reputations as peacemakers. Then various entertainment outlets swooped in, looking to tell the story of the quarians and the geth. But outnumbering them all were the lawyers lining up to serve summons to the geth for the deaths and damages done during the Battle of the Citadel.
But none of them had actually come to help the quarians.
The majority could be ignored but the Admiralty Board could only put off the Alliance for so long. Humanity deserved to know what had cost them their seat on the council, or so they argued. But Xen knew the truth. The rift between the Alliance and Citadel nothing to do with the quarians. No, the shiny white plastic facade of the Systems Alliance had cracked, exposing the dark, twisted heart of Cerberus underneath. But that didn't stop the humans from forcing their way into the matter. In a rare display of unity, she, Koris, Raan and Gerrel agreed that controlled exposure of the negotiations would prevent a flurry of uncontrolled attempts that were sure to occur if they continued to try and keep it a secret.
So, in conjunction with the Alliance Navy media office, a deal was brokered with Future Content to allow one reporter and an assistant to cover the talks and interview the participants. No live broadcasts would be permitted, and all recorded materials had to pass a security screening with both Alliance and quarian censors to prevent any sensitive information from leaking out. Xen was granted one additional concession over the protests of Future Content. The reporter and assistant would have an armed escort at all times, no exceptions.
And so a pair of marines had the illustrious duty of following the humans whenever they were aboard the Rayya. But even with all those precautions in place, she was still uncomfortable with their presence aboard a quarian ship. It was entirely possible, she had to admit, she just didn't like aliens very much.
"What happened to the female?" Xen asked.
Gerrel grunted. "She was recalled a few hours ago to cover another story. Commander Shepard's return from Omega Four is apparently bigger news."
Xen watched the human reporter patiently listen to Koris' ramblings. Even from where she stood, up on the platform, she could tell he wasn't interested in the least. "This is a game to them. We're nothing more than stray animals in their eyes. A tragic case to be pitied, a cause that they can champion. When it's over they'll move on, no different than the others."
"No," Shala'Ran vas Tonbay joined them at the railing. "That is not true. The humans have lost their place on the Council, their trade has been disrupted and their economy is in a panic. They have been outcast because they tried to help us."
"Outcast," Xen muttered. For Raan to describe another people that way made her stomach churn. "It's all politics. We are being used by both sides to try and gain leverage against the other. Our fate does not matter to either."
"You're wrong, Daro. Ambassador Castillo still joins us every day, and a human ship still holds station in our fleet, regardless of the protests and the sanctions against them. You have spoken to the ambassador as much as I. Even you have to agree, he believes in what he is doing here."
Xen looked away. As loathe as she was to admit it, the human's civilian representative was polite, respectful and charming. But most of all, he listened to what they had to say, and instead of taking orders from his Alliance handlers, he always framed the negotiations from the perspective of what the Admiralty Board wanted out of them. So maybe Raan was right about Castillo, but that didn't mean she trusted the government he represented at all.
Shala'Raan continued. "Regardless, they have made us relevant again, even if only temporarily. Our situation is once again at the forefront of Council politics. We are squandering an opportunity with these senseless debates. We have an opportunity to make progress in ways we could not have dreamed before."
Xen turned to face her counterpart. "What dreams are those? To keep roaming endlessly through space, hoping that somewhere we find a world someone will let us occupy? To become a client state of the humans? Become the drell to their hanar? Grovel at the feet of the geth and beg them to give us back our homeworld?"
Raan sighed heavily. "You know as well as I do that a majority of our people prefer peace."
With a roll of his eyes, Gerrel turned back to watch Koris make a fool of himself with the human. Xen, on the other hand, leaned back against the railing, arms crossed. "As do I. But the peace I offer doesn't require that we live off the scraps our enemies deem fit to leave us."
"I'm well aware of what your solution entails," Raan said, her eyes narrowed. "And I have my suspicions that the continued difficulties the Conclave is experiencing are not the result of normal political discourse."
Xen's head tilted quizzically. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"I'm sure. Our people are tired of this war, Daro. They are growing more fractured and divisive every day. The longer you drag this out, the worse it will be for all of us."
Xen struggled to keep the venom from her voice. "Which is why you should change your vote and end this now. For the good of our people. The geth have withdrawn. They will not negotiate. And we have the means to take back what is ours, with or without their consent. That is something we cannot afford to squander. We have no other hope!"
"But we do," Raan shook her head. "Tali'Zorah and her mechanical friend. This started with them. The geth want peace-"
"You don't know that!"
"But I want to know," Raan pointed at Xen. "I need to know. I need to know the future we give our children is not built on the same foundation of arrogance that collapsed under our feet and left us with literally nowhere to stand. We survived that outcome once before. We cannot survive it again. This is our first chance to talk to the geth since the uprising. I won't let you waste it."
Gerrel looked back over his shoulder, then to Xen, his eyes full of disappointment.
Xen closed her eyes. "And you'll think she'll come back, after what we did to her and her father? After what you did to her?"
Raan winced at Xen's accusation, but she knew it was true. Throughout Tali's trial, she had excused herself from any official duty that could have interfered with, or helped her best friend's daughter's case. Tali walked in blind and greeted Raan as family, only barely aware of the charges against her, to be completely blindsided by the news of her father's death as the result of the conspiracy of silence Shala'Raan herself helped to create. Clan Zorah's name and legacy were dragged through the scow, all in the name of preserving the unity of the Admiralty board and the flotilla.
And only one person had the courage and conviction to stand up for Tali when when no one else would, and he wasn't even quarian. Raan's ears still echoed with Shepard's enraged diatribe in front of the Board, and felt nothing but contempt for herself that it took an alien for them to realize all they had accomplished was to delay the inevitable turmoil that was soon to grip the Flotilla... at the cost of ruining a young woman's life.
Though she'd never say it out loud to the likes of Xen, she hoped that Tali'Zorah could be convinced to return, if for no other reason so she could apologize in person. "Her heart has always been with the fleet. If we ask for her help, she will come."
Xen shook her head in amazement and turned back to look over the garden with Gerrel.
"Here comes Zaal and the human," he said. "I think it's time I retired to my ship."
"I think I'll join you," Xen said, not in the mood to deal with the alien.
The two admirals withdrew from their positions overlooking the garden and walked wordlessly past Raan toward the hatch at its rear just as Koris and his charge reached its base.
"Admiral Raan," the human said, watching with obvious disappointment as the other half of the Admiralty Board made a quick exit through the chamber door behind them. "Eric Dahlberg, Future Content. Would you have a moment to answer a few questions about today's debate?"
"Of course," Raan said warmly. "I will be right down. Please excuse my colleagues. They have urgent Fleet business to attend to. But Admiral Koris and I are at your disposal." She cast a single glance over her shoulder as the hatch behind her closed, trying not to think of what her companions were so eager to discuss out of earshot of the visiting journalist.
Like most compartments aboard a quarian ship, the board chamber was built for efficiency. It was the antithesis of the vast open courtyard outside, low ceilinged, barely four meters square containing a round table with five seats around its circumference. While the Assembly Garden had set aside to preserve some semblance of an open-air forum like the quarians used to enjoy on the homeworld, this room had barely enough room for the five admirals when they were all together. But by current standards, the average quarian would think of it as hugely spacious.
"How close are you," Gerrel said when the hatch closed behind them.
Xen walked around the table, tracing its edge with her finger. "We've completed our research. We are ready to begin trials as soon as we can locate a suitable specimen. How close are you?"
"I have prepared a fleetwide emergency relocation order that will put us within a single jump of the Perseus Veil. From there, we will be ready to launch our assault. We've been training under the guise of security drills for the negotiations. I just need to give the order."
Xen stopped in her tracks. "Give me more time to get my specimen, and I guarantee your marines will be able to land without firing a shot."
"You're that sure it will work?"
"Isn't it worth sparing all the ships and the lives of their crews to find out?"
"Absolutely," Gerrel said. "But how long can we afford to wait? If Tali'Zorah and her pet geth show up here, you can write off the Conclave. That will swing the vote enough that you can't fix it. They'll vote in that coward Sima'Anzel and we'll be back to square one. Drifting in space for all eternity, waiting for the Council to save us."
Xen nodded quietly. Han'Gerrel was brash and stubborn, but he was at least decisive, and better still, on her side. "Our methodology may differ," she told him, "but we at least agree on one thing."
"That we can't depend on anyone else to save us."
Gerrel nodded firmly. "So I ask again, and I don't want any of your obfuscation. Are you sure it will work?"
"All we need is one test platform," Xen said, her voice confident and almost hopeful, "and the rest of the collective will be ours in minutes. The war will be over. And just like that, your invasion fleet will become an escort, guiding our people home."
Gerrel took a deep breath and let it out. His entire life had been spent fighting a war that could not be won. As a species, they never had the means or the willpower to do it. Now, they might have both. "How do we get you your specimen?"
"The same as we planned before. We take the geth Zorah's got."
"But that was when the talks were still secret," Gerrel said. "There will be too many people watching now.""Then we need to get it before they come," Xen replied. Using her omnitool, she brought up a map of the mass relay network. "Where is the Normandy now?"