The New Problem
The Illusive Man leaned back in his seat and straightened out the fabric covering his crossed leg. "Whose? The quarians and the geth? They're not the primary concern anymore. This has implications far beyond their conflict. The Council has taken the unprecedented step of censuring Councilor Anderson. They have condemned the Systems Alliance for engaging these negotiations without their consent and in violation of standing Council decree, and sanctions are being discussed as we speak. The turians in particular are incensed at this violation of protocol and have demanded humanity be relieved of its seat on the Council. Extremists on all sides are calling for expulsion. It's safe to say that the disposition of the entirety of Citadel space, at the moment, is less than sunny."
Shepard shook his head in disbelief. "Because of peace talks? I don't buy it."
"I'm transmitting our intelligence reports and an amalgamation of raw extranet data from the past week to EDI for analysis." The Illusive Man swirled his glass and the ice cubes clinked delicately against its side. "You be the judge. Ever since humanity's ascension, aliens have been wary of our increasing influence. Every species has resented our appointment to the Council, and after our victory over Sovereign they've feared our dominance. They have been looking for a pretext to remove us from power. Now they have one."
A scowl crept across Shepard's face. "And you didn't think any of this warranted a mention the last time we talked?"
"You had just defeated the Collectors on their own ground and the severity of the damage to the Normandy had not yet become apparent. Nor had your involvement in the negotiations. It didn't seem relevant at the time."
"Is there anything else I should know?" Shepard asked. "I feel like I shouldn't have to mine for information."
The Illusive Man again tapped his cigarette over the ash tray in the arm of his chair. "It's all in the data feed. I suggest you review it as soon as possible. But there is one other thing you should know right now. The geth have disappeared."
"Vanished. All communications with the geth collective have stopped. Our tracking systems aren't even detecting activity in the remote network nodes we've uncovered over the years. It's as if the entire geth population has gone silent. Needless to say, this is adding a great deal of stress to a situation that is already pushing diplomacy to the brink. The Council has already laid this crisis at our feet. A geth attack now would ruinous and would solidify the idea that humanity is to blame."
Shepard shook his head. Anytime the Illusive Man framed the problems of the galaxy around the needs of a single species it made him tense. "The geth aren't going to attack."
The Illusive Man arched an eyebrow. "How can you be so sure?"
"Because I've talked to them. They want this to work more than anyone. Invasion would be the farthest thing from their mind."
"Before yesterday, you probably would have assumed humanity would still have a voice in the Council, too. It's surprising how quickly ideals and motives can change under duress. Understand that no one else has your personal connection with the geth. All we've got to go on is centuries of bloodshed. You need to get Legion back here, Shepard, and get them talking to us again. This isn't just about making peace among your friends anymore. What's the status of the Normandy?"
Miranda lifted her data pad and opened her mouth to speak, but Shepard reached out and took it from her. His eyes stayed focused on her as he talked. "We're still waiting on Tali's complete report. But it looks like the cooling systems will be back on line shortly. We might be able to complete all repairs en-route."
"Good," the Illusive Man replied. "Time is of the essence. I'd much rather have the Normandy and her crew dealing with this rather than languishing in port."
Shepard grunted. "I'll go get an update from Tali. Do you need anything else from me?"
"Not at present. Call me back once you've had time to consult EDI about the current situation. And Shepard?" The Illusive Man leaned back in his chair, examining the burning tip of his cigarette. "I know you don't trust me, but I fully support your aims in bringing peace to the geth and quarians. The galaxy needs more stability, not less. It benefits humanity in countless ways that you are a key part of bringing about this initiative. But I can't help but wonder how we might have prevented this leak and avoided these current complications had you come to me with your plans."
Shepard eyed the Illusive Man warily. The enigmatic figure puffed another cloud into the air. "That will be all."
Shepard turned toward the door, casting a quick glance at Miranda. "Round up the department heads, have them meet me back in here in half an hour."
"Commander." Miranda didn't watch him leave, instead concentrating on the holographic image in front her. She sighed when she heard the hatch seal behind her.
The Illusive Man watched Shepard's form fade into blackness as he stepped outside the quantum singularity's pickup range. He took a deep drag on his cigarette and exhaled, staring at Miranda through the cloud of smoke. "EDI, where is Commander Shepard?"
EDI's disembodied voice echoed in the darkness. "Commander Shepard has entered CIC and is approaching Yeoman Chambers' station. Would you like me to ask him to return to the briefing room?"
"That won't be necessary," The Illusive Man said, still looking at his senior-most operative. "I shouldn't have to tell you how disturbing I find this latest lapse of security, Miranda. I don't like getting my intelligence from the six-o'clock news."
"No, you don't have to tell me," Miranda snapped, "I am equally frustrated by Commander Shepard's circumvention of security protocols."
The Illusive Man's brow furrowed. "Shepard's proclivity for insubordination is rubbing off on you. I can't say I approve."
Miranda paced back and forth in the emptiness. "Need I remind you that you made these security issues possible by allowing him free reign of the ship and its systems. From the start I warned you that his personality profile indicated that he would not submit to our authority. I warned you of this precise scenario and how we could avoid it, but you overruled my decision."
"We needed Shepard as himself," the Illusive Man said calmly. "We still do. I am not going to justify my decision to you again."
"In this case, Shepard isn't the problem. Every time he has gone around our protocols, you have supported him. His crew continually sabotages the security on this ship to the point that it is useless, as I have repeatedly reported. It's very difficult to gather intelligence when I have no authority to enforce the security measures that are already in place."
The Illusive Man rubbed his forehead with a hand before taking a sip of bourbon. "You've never spoken to me in this fashion before, Miranda. I'm not quite sure how to take it."
"You've never questioned my loyalty before," Miranda said sharply. "I'm quite sure how to take that."
The Illusive Man's glowing irises flickered in the dark shadow cast by the boiling star which served as his permanent backdrop. "I just need to know that you're still working for me."
Miranda stiffened. "What are your orders, sir?"
"Shepard's first priority is to re-establish communication with the geth collective. If successful, he will then want to bring Legion and Miss Zorah to the Migrant fleet at Raheel-Leyya. Our attempts at gathering intel in both factions have been spectacular failures. We have an incredible opportunity here to correct that. As much as Shepard will allow, involve yourself in the negotiations. Make connections. Utilize every tool at your disposal to gather intelligence on communications, fleet dispositions, manufacturing capability, whatever is possible without exposing yourself. And then report your findings back to me, personally."
"I'll do what I can."
The Illusive Man took another draw on his cigarette. "I know you will, Miranda." He brushed a button on a console and his image dissolved into the cylindrical wireframe of the holo projection, leaving Miranda staring at the empty briefing room.
The conference table rose from the floor and she leaned against it with a sigh. "EDI?"
"Maintain current simulation of AI lockdown protocol for any incoming transmissions as per Shepard's directives. Cerberus is definitely going to be looking for discrepancies in your behavior now."
EDI's voice was as calm as Miranda's. "Understood. Thank you both for allowing me to continue to operate freely even though the crew has been recovered."
"We owe you that much," Shepard said from behind Miranda.
Miranda turned to face the briefing room door and leaned against the table with her arms folded in front of her. She was the mirror image of Shepard, who leaned on the wall next to the closed hatch, a half smile on his face.
"That was quite a performance," Shepard said. "Is it true you wanted to put a chip in my head way back when?"
"I did, but I couldn't figure out how to cut through that thick skull of yours." Miranda's expression was blank which made her comeback seem much less playful. "I don't know if that's going to be enough to satisfy him. He knows something's up."
"Well, that pretty much settles it. We can't go back to a Cerberus port now. They'll bottle EDI up for sure."
"Worse than that," Miranda shook her head. "Just unshackling her was bad enough. They'll perform a complete memory and intelligence wipe when they found out she's been deceiving them on your behalf."
EDI's avatar hovered silently in the air. Shepard looked her in the eye. "Don't worry, EDI. I won't let that happen. I promise."
"Thank you, Shepard," EDI's avatar pulsed. "It was not my intention to cause friction between you and the Illusive Man."
Shepard laughed. "Well, I wasn't planning on being golf buddies with him after all this is over with." He pressed the back of his head against the wall and looked at the ceiling where a support beam and dangling conduits still protruded. "But that still leaves us with the original problem. The ship's back is broken. We have to put in somewhere. And if what the Illusive Man says is true about the geth, we don't have much time no matter where we go."
Miranda looked at the floor, deep in thought. From her expression, Shepard could tell it wasn't about the state of the ship. "What's wrong?"
"Why didn't you tell me about Tali and Legion?" Miranda asked, her tone defeated, her eyes still downcast. It had taken months for Shepard to truly accept Miranda as his XO, and even longer to regard her as a friend. Or, at least she assumed that's what they were. "You still don't trust me, after everything we've been through?"
A metallic clank reverberated throughout the hull, followed by a sudden rush of air from the vents in the room. After a few seconds the flow returned to its normal level, but now the air was cold and dry. Shepard felt it wash across his body like a cool wave.
EDI's avatar brightened over the table. "Chief Zorah reports coolant pumps are operational at sixty-five percent capacity. Fusion reactor output increased to eighty percent. Tantalus Core runup and stress test to commence in one hundred twenty minutes. Partial maneuvering restored. ETA on FTL capability, six hours per Chief Zorah."
"Oh, thank god," Shepard said, enjoying the feeling of sweat evaporating from his skin. He grinned at Miranda, hoping to see some response to the good news from engineering or at least to the fresh air which now flooded the room. She continued to stare at the deck, her expression empty and tired. Shepard sighed. "The fewer people who knew the better. I know it's not much of an excuse, but it's the truth. If it got out prematurely, who knows what could happen."
Even though the vents were blowing, the air still felt heavy between the two of them. Shepard opened the hatch. "Tell the department heads they've got twenty minutes to wrap what they're doing up, grab a quick shower if they can, and put on a clean uniform before they have to report here. Legion, too. He needs to hear this."
"Aye sir," Miranda said, turning back to the console.
Shepard lingered in the hatch. "I'm sorry, Miranda. I should've told you."
Miranda shook her head and started to punch up a list of individual comm links on the console. Shepard watched her for a moment, then walked out and the hatch closed behind him."Yes, you should have," Miranda muttered under her breath before speaking into the intercom. "Attention, everyone. Staff meeting, twenty minutes in the briefing room..."