Enlea T'Vari walked around the center console in the Normandy's CIC unopposed as she watched the mix of Cerberus, Alliance and Citadel personnel swarm around the command center like a hive of insects, relaying information and orders to ships throughout the galaxy. The conference room had become too confined and limiting for the task, and even now the CIC was being overwhelmed even with the aid of the ship's AI. There was just too much to do, especially now with the first report coming back from the turian squadron now on the other side of Omega Four. The entire room fell hushed as the first communication drone returned from the other side. But it was just a recording, as real-time communication beyond the relay was impossible until specialized communication ships were brought on scene.
"The debris field is immense," the turian voice sounded awed, but calm. "Tens of thousands of derelicts. We are transmitting approach vectors suitable for larger ships, but kinetic barriers are a must until lanes can be cleaned out. The whole field is also swarming with those oculus drones. We're staying in tight formation with supporting fields of fire. Our GARDIAN systems are holding them off without too much trouble.
"The base installation is right where Shepard said it would be. It's enormous... We have a visual on it and are reading zero emissions. Looks nice and quiet, so far. Other than the oculus, there's been no contact. We are holding the arrival point and are awaiting reinforcements or orders to withdraw."
A strange sensation surged through Enlea's body. Excitement? Fear? Equal amounts of both, but more than that was a sense of relief. When they first came aboard the Normandy, she and Captain Lorian were committed to capturing one of the greatest traitors in Citadel history. Shepard's impossible fantasies about ancient machines and galactic extinctions were presumed to be nothing more than a desperate attempt to delay his arrest. But not any more. With every passing minute, the magnitude of the threat became clearer. But while the Citadel fleet and Alliance had put aside political differences to work together, the Terminus governments were less enthusiastic about their presence. How the news would be shared with the rest of the governments in the galaxy had not yet been determined.
She approached Lorian next to the Commander's workstation. He had been strangely subdued for several minutes now while Shepard and the human Commodore chatted with Yeoman Chambers. She cleared her throat as she approached him. "Excuse me, Captain. I've just received word that the Citadel is dispatching a diplomatic team to open talks with the Terminus factions to discuss our operations here. They are requesting an escort and I think that's wise. Can you spare a frigate or two?"
Lorian continued to contemplate the galactic map swirling above the center of the room, his talons behind his back. "That is a decision for Commodore Cepellus now. I have been relieved and will be returning to the Citadel as soon as the transfer of command is complete."
Shepard and Rehme turned toward him at the unexpected announcement. Enlea shared their shocked expression.
"My apologies," The old turian watched as an entire galactic arm drifted slowly in front of him, sparkling in the dark. "I learned of the order only minutes ago. You should be receiving the official notification shortly."
Rehme's face turned bright red. "What the hell kind of crap is this? I can see handing command over to the ranking officer now that more ships have arrived. But you're being relieved?"
"I am to appear before a Board of Inquiry." Lorian told his human counterparts. "This is not unexpected. We suffered many casualties at the hands of the collectors. I was in command. It falls on me to answer for them."
"Of course," Rehme said. "But right now? I don't know about you, Shepard, but I'm smelling a little Citadel-scented bullshit here. We finally get a turian we can deal with, and they're going to take him away because he helped us."
Shepard shook his head in disbelief. "It wasn't your fault," Shepard told Lorian. "You had no idea what you were up against."
"I was in command," Lorian repeated and looked back at Shepard. "Fault does not factor into the equation."
Yeoman Chambers, listening from the periphery, cleared her throat. "Incoming transmission, Commander. It's from the Citadel, confirming Captain Lorian's recall."
There it is, Shepard thought. At least they told him first. But it didn't make their situation any better. Once confronted with the reaper threat, Lorian and Rehme had established a rapport that immediately trickled down to their subordinates. Bringing in someone new might just break this fragile alliance. But that wasn't the only thing that bothered Shepard. Captain Lorian might be raked over the coals because his own superiors refused to acknowledge the threat which ended up destroying his task force, but it had to be more than that. If Rehme was right, this was being done to undermine them at the same time punishing a captain who dared think for himself... "Thank you, Kelly."
"Sir," she continued, sounding a little shaken. "I'm getting another request... from Councilor Tevos personally, sir. She, uh, the Council wishes to speak to you."
All those within earshot of Kelly's voice stopped what they were doing and a hush fell over the aft half of CIC. Turians, Alliance and Cerberus personnel alike stared at Shepard, who reacted to the news that the most powerful body in the galaxy was calling with a tired sigh.
"Tell them I'll be with them in a minute," he told Kelly. There was too much going on at the moment, and in his current mood he might just tell the Council what he thought of them. He looked at the Captain, trying to figure out something to say to get him to reconsider leaving. But he also knew better than to debate duty and protocol with a turian.
"Uh," Kelly stammered, as if she'd suddenly forgotten how to work her panel. "You want me to put the Council on hold, sir?"
Shepard rolled his eyes and stepped toward her console. "This is Commander Shepard. I'll call you back in a minute."
"Commander Shepard," an asari voice spoke quickly. "Don't you dare disconnect us-"
Kelly's jaw dropped as she looked at the now dormant comm panel. Everyone else stared at Shepard with equal astonishment as he leaned distractedly against the console, lost in thought after hanging up on the highest ranking officials in Citadel space as if they had been telemarketers. Even Commodore Rehme was speechless at the display of defiance.
"The classics never go out of style," Joker's disembodied voice echoed around the suddenly silent CIC. He had been listening in, as usual. "Just like old times eh, Commander?"
Shepard looked up and shook his head.
Enlea could barely contain her exasperation. "Commander Shepard!"
Shepard waved his hand with disinterest. "Don't worry. They'll take comfort from that. Now they know it's really me." He stepped past her and stood next to Lorian, who barely seemed to notice the entire exchange and still stared at the galactic map. "Captain?"
"I must return to my ship," Lorian said. "Is there a terminal where I make arrangements with Commodore Cepellus and my XO?"
"Kelly, give him anything he needs."
"Aye sir," Kelly said, still in shock from hanging up on the Council.
Lorian turned to face Shepard, hands clasped behind him, calm and dignified. He spoke softly. "Well. The Council is awaiting your call. I doubt I will be here by the time you return. It was an honor meeting you, Commander."
Shepard sighed again. In some ways, he admired the Captain's strict adherence to discipline and duty. He thought back to all the times he'd told higher authorities to stick it, especially the Council, and how now it was almost reflex. Maybe, he thought, you've spent so much time on your own as a Spectre and working with Cerberus that you forgot that soldiers have to answer for their actions. Are you really worried about what's going to happen to Lorian, he wondered. Or are you worried that you might have to lose the leeway you've got and start taking orders again? "The pleasure was all mine, Captain."
Lorian bowed slightly and stepped solemnly toward Kelly's communication station.
"I'll be in the conference room," Shepard told Rehme and Enlea. "Come get me if Commodore Cepellus is going to give us any problems."
Unlike the quantum entanglement array, the briefing room did not fade into black when the more traditional relay-based communications were utilized. With the Normandy's close proximity to the Sahrabarik relay, there would be no lag between the ship and the Citadel, thousands of light years away.
Three bipedal holographic images resolved in the center of the room in the open middle of the conference table, giving Shepard the impression he was talking across a bannister. He stood along the table's long axis so the callers could render life-sized, and he would have the maximum amount of floor space on which to pace. He was sure he was going to need it.
As usual, the the turian Councilor Sparatus stood on the left, with Tevos in the middle and the salarian Valern on the right. If Shepard was any judge of alien body language, all three of them seemed mildly irritated from their postures. Just like old times, indeed.
"Commander Shepard," Tevos said calmly, "I see your propensity for sudden disconnects has not suffered during your extended hiatus."
"I can do it in here, too," Shepard said, holding a finger out over the panel built into the table. "Want to see how fast I've gotten?"
Tevos inhaled deeply, her eyes closed. "Not particularly, no. In light of your recent services, I was hoping to take our relationship in a more positive direction."
"Commander," Valern held up his hands in supplication. He glanced over at his two companions. "Please. A lot has changed since we last spoke. Rest assured, you have our full attention now. What you have uncovered beyond the Omega Four relay is quite frankly terrifying."
Sparatus' mandibles clamped tightly shut, but Tevos found herself nodding in spite of herself. "What you and your crew have discovered will affect the lives of every organic being in the galaxy. And it's clear we must act, immediately, and in unison."
"I'm glad you see it that way." Shepard's tense posture relaxed slightly, but not completely. "So what are you going to do about it?"
Tevos took another deep breath and started to speak, checked herself, and then started again. "We're going to listen, Commander. To our commanders at Sarhabarik, to our analysts who are even now scrutinizing your data, and to the military advisers to the Council. And, if you will allow it, to you."
Shepard arched an eyebrow as he surveyed the faces in the holograms before him. Sparatus, of course, wore a mask of haughty indifference, not contributing to the discussion in the least. But with Tevos and Valern, the look in their eyes conveyed something beyond the shame, remorse or contrition he had hoped for: abject fear. That, more than anything, meant that they were not simply patronizing him.
It still wasn't enough for him to let go. It would take more than a conference call to make him forget the past three years. "Maybe you should come see it in person."
"The vids are more than sufficient," Tevos said quickly. "But you've proven your point... We believe you, Commander. We are just now receiving the first live feed from our ships on the other side of the Omega Four relay. It's truly astounding. And allow me to express our regrets over the losses endured by your colonies at the hands of the collectors. I'm told the number is in the hundreds of thousands."
As much as he wanted to jump on the table and perform repeated pelvic thrusts in the face of each of the holograms in turn while gesturing at his groin, Shepard only nodded. After seeing the dignity with which Lorian handled his recall, it was time to start listening instead of fighting. They were saying the right things - the question was did they mean it?
Valern cleared his throat at the sudden silence. "We understand that the technology to open the Omega Four relay, and possibly all dormant relays in the galaxy, came from Cerberus."
"That's right," Shepard said.
"And you handed it over, willingly."
Shepard crossed his arms. "I practically had to force it at gunpoint."
All three of the councilors, including Sparatus, looked away in varying directions. Valern nervously cleared his throat again, and Sparatus appeared to be standing rigidly at attention. Only Tevos made eye contact.
"Commander Shepard," she said. "We owe you the deepest of apologies. First for not believing you after Sovereign - the reaper attacked, and then for thinking your loyalties lay with a terrorist organization, when clearly they do not. We are in your debt. Again. And I am sorry. I don't know how I can say it any clearer."
As much as he wanted to believe and accept what he was hearing at face value, Shepard could not prevent a bitter edge in his tone. He had been through far too much, seen too many colleagues die on the SSV Normandy, seen to many of his friends' lives destroyed because no one wanted to see the truth. "I just hope you've gotten better at repaying your debts. I understand there's a capture-or-kill order out on me?"
Valern answered quickly. "That has been rescinded, of course! A terrible misunderstanding resulting from many unfortunate circumstances."
"Why was it ordered in the first place?"
"Look at it from our perspective," Tevos said. "Please. After you disappeared, we knew nothing of your intentions or your goals. When we learned that one of our most trusted agents with our most advanced training and highest security clearance was openly working with Cerberus, it was bad enough. But when we discovered that Cerberus agents had infiltrated the highest levels in the Alliance, and your largest military corporations are acting as fronts for them... it did not enhance your reputation with us."
"Yeah," Shepard rubbed the back of his neck. "I heard about that. We've got some house-cleaning to do."
"To put it mildly." Tevos shook her head. "Add to that this business with the geth. Just as the magnitude of Cerberus infiltration became apparent, we learned the Systems Alliance had been participating in secret negotiations with another enemy faction, one that had had compromised nearly every network in Citadel Space..."
"They were just monitoring," Shepard interrupted. "They're just trying to understand us."
"Or spying, depending on your viewpoint. And when they were discovered, the geth withdrew completely, possibly preparing for invasion. And the only known geth outside the Perseus Veil happened to be aboard a starship coincidentally captained by a former Spectre turned rogue. Tell me, Commander, what would you have done?"
Shepard looked down at the table. The ghost of Saren still colored the Council's actions to this day, and with good reason. He could not argue their logic. "I would have tried to capture the Normandy," he said reluctantly.
For the first time, Sparatus spoke. "And you would have resisted."
Shepard tempered his response toward the turian. "Undoubtedly."
Tevos clasped her hands in front of her. "Fortunately, it did not come to that. If it had, and we were forced to destroy your ship... I shudder to think what would have happened to all of us, to everyone, had that been the outcome."
Shepard looked between the Councilors. Even Sparatus seemed unnerved by the thought. "So what do want from me, then?"
Tevos bowed her head, relieved at the unexpected hint towards cooperation. "We need two things from you, Commander. We need you to come to the Citadel, so all of these matters concerning Cerberus can be cleared up. Tell us everything you know about them, help the Alliance in rooting out the traitors amongst them. That will heal much of the damage humanity's reputation has endured."
Shepard closed his eyes. He knew that if he was going to return to any regular service of the Alliance or Citadel that he was going to have to turn his back on Cerberus entirely. Could he make them understand that for him, it wasn't as black-and-white?
Tevos continued. "And we need you to bring the geth with you, so we can open formal negotiations. We need assurances that they are as non-threatening as you say they are."
"Woah, woah, woah," Shepard said. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves. Before I even think about coming in, I need assurances that my crew-"
Both Valern and Sparatus turned toward the asari between them. "Bring the geth here?" the salarian said, his already large eyes wide, "I don't know if you remember, Councilor, but their last visit was not very cordial."
"Preposterous," Sparatus said. "Not until we're sure of their intentions. Besides, we already have diplomatic representation aboard the Normandy, do we not? What's her name... T'vari? She is more than qualified to begin preliminary talks.""
Shepard closed his eyes. "I don't believe this," he muttered.
"Enlea T'Vari is a competent representative," Tevos said, "but this matter is well above her security clearance. We need to handle relations with the geth delicately and properly."
Shepard leaned in close to the holo pickup, causing his gigantic, disembodied face loom ominously close to the Council representatives on their end. Placing his thumb and forefinger between his teeth, he sounded the loudest, harshest whistle he could muster. All three Councilors looked up with shocked expressions. Valern actually took a step backwards.
Shepard retreated as well, back to normal pickup range for the camera, a look of disgust on his face. "Before there's any talk of coming in, I want blanket immunity for all of my crew, for anything that was done during our mission or in service to Cerberus."
"You can't be serious," Sparatus said.
"I'm dead serious," Shepard said. "Complete, total, absolute immunity. Every single member of my crew had a direct hand in saving you all from extinction. I'll be damned if I let them hang for it. Now I know you can't grant it without a pile of paperwork, so the sooner you get your lawyers on it, the sooner I'll be in the mood to cooperate. This is non-negotiable."
"Welcome back, Commander Shepard," Valern said sarcastically. "Is there anything else?"
"As a matter of fact," Shepard said, "there is. The Alliance did not open negotiations with the geth. They're acting as neutral mediators between the geth and quarians, nothing more."
"So we've been told," Sparatus said.
Shepard crossed his arms. "The geth want to talk to their creators. After that, it's up to them to decide with whom they talk."
"Commander Shepard," Tevos said levelly, "You are interfering with rulings the Council made before your species even realized there were other worlds to explore."
Shepard laughed humorlessly. "Yeah, I know. I've been hearing that a lot lately. And every time I hear it, I think the same thing. In that time, my people have gone from steam engines to mass effect generators. But none of you could work out a solution to he quarian problem? From what I see, no one has even tried. I wonder why that is? You've been around a long time, madam Councilor. Care to enlighten me?"
"You're a young species," Tevos said. "There are many things you do not yet understand."
"Maybe," Shepard felt the last small bit of good will that had built up leak away. For all the misgivings he had about the Illusive Man, he was often very insightful when it came to the political machinations of the Council... and this time, he was right on the money. For whatever reason, the Citadel was not going to help. And if he surrendered himself to them, what would they do to him, or the crew of the Normandy? "But I do understand one thing... The geth aren't interested in talking to you or anybody other than their creators. If I have anything to say about it, they're going to get the chance. We done here?"
Sparatus shook his head. "You're going to find that position will make you a lot of enemies, Shepard."
"Won't be the first time," Shepard said, walking toward the briefing room hatch.
"And we won't be able to help you," Tevos called after him.
Shepard didn't look back. "Won't be the first time for that, either. EDI, lose this channel."