"May I have everyone's attention, please," Shala'Raan's hands gripped the railing of the Admirals' dais as she spoke, as if she might fall down if she let go. "The Giraf has docked, and I have just been informed that the geth representatives are not on board. We offer our deepest regrets, but they will not be appearing today. Negotiations are on hold until further notice."
Murmurs of disbelief caused a ripple of flashing lights across the faces of the nearly two-thousand quarians packed into the Assembly Garden as they turned to one another in shock. After weeks of delays and false starts, only a handful of the Conclave had been coming to the daily sessions. Today, the most highly esteemed and privileged captains had arranged to be on board the Rayya to be a part of history when the quarians would finally face the machines that had driven them from their homeworld. Banners from the nations of Rannoch flew from every corner and were draped over every edge. It was a gathering unlike any seen on the captial ship since the trial of Tali'Zorah vas Normandy.
Eric Dalhberg swept his camera across the terraced forum and his remote drone hovered high over the center of the chamber, capturing the growing discontent. Out of two thousand people in the room, there were only two other humans, each wearing the protective suits required by their hosts. He glanced up at the back row near the Garden's main entrance where Firaz Saxena covered the reverse angle. Through a throng of quarians exiting the chamber, his assistant gave him a thumbs up and spoke over the private channel built into their suits.
"These people are not happy," Firaz said.
"At least we're going to have something to put on the air today," Eric replied. "Set your remote on the platform, give me a wide shot of the Admirals and Castillo. Let's see how they spin this one."
"You got it."
Eric turned and zoomed in close on the face of the human ambassador. For a man in his early 100's, Ferdinand Castillo was remarkably fit, filling out the stark gray lines of his envirosuit like a model. His tidily cropped snow-white hair, mustache and beard provided excellent contast to his tan skin, wrinkled heavily around eyes that seemed to sparkle even behind the translucent mask he was forced to wear. Eric hoped he would look as good when he reached that age. The old man stared sadly over the retreating crowd, now openly booing and hurling insults at the platform.
Zaal'Koris stepped forward next to Raan. "I assure you, the geth delegation was en-route!" Koris' announcement only made the crowd's angry cries even louder, and the captains on the floor of the chamber turned to leave as well.
The ambassador moved to stand next to Raan and Koris. "My friends, please," Castillo appealed to the retreating crowd in flawless fleet standard, forgoing the use of a translator. "Give us a moment to figure out what has happened!"
"I can't believe this," Koris said as he stomped towards Admirals Gerrel and Xen at the back of the platform, along with Consul Rilos who had just delivered the news. "What went wrong? You're here, your ship is here! Where are the geth?"
"Apologies, sir," Rilos bowed his head. "But we had just greeted the geth at our airlock and they refused to board."
Admiral Gerrel shrugged. "Apparently our friend Shepard forbade the geth and Tali'Zorah to board unless he could accompany them, even though he was explicitly told he was not welcome here. Captain Carn rightfully rejected them."
"And then the good Commander apparently instigated a war as a response," Xen scoffed.
"It's true, sir," Rilos said to Koris. "We were lucky to get out of there with our ship. It was anarchy."
Castillo fumbled in his jacket pocket for his datapad and skimmed the Migrant Fleet news feed. Hundreds killed and wounded in Dashta Massacre... "Dear god," he whispered.
"Are you getting all of this?" Firaz asked over the comm.
"Oh yeah," Eric replied, going for close-ups with his hand-held rig and sweeping tracking shots with his remote. "Look up Dashta on your omni. See if we can tie this thing to the negotiations."
Friaz laughed. "On it! Think this will get us out of here?"
"We can only hope," Eric said as he continued to record.
"What happened to the geth?" Raan asked.
Rilos shook his head apologetically. "We don't know. They ran off with Shepard and Zorah while we were aboard ship discussing the Commander's demands. By the time we came back out, the entire station was a war zone."
Koris's talons clenched at his side. "And you didn't call for support? Or even report what had happened? We had two thousand of the most important members of the Conclave here, waiting! This is a disaster! Where is Captain Carn? Summon him here immediately!"
Rilos closed his eyes. "Captain Carn is dead, sir. He and several of the crew volunteered to go out on the docks in an attempt to find the geth. They were killed in the crossfire."
Admiral Raan shook her head in disbelief. "Why didn't you report in?"
"A ship, maybe the Normandy, patched its core into the station's electrical. No one could transmit or receive for thousands of kilometers."
"Barbaric," Xen shook her head in disgust.
Rilos sighed heavily. "I assumed command. Because station communications were down, we were unable to disembark. A neighboring ship took a direct hit and exploded, sending debris into our communication array. When we were finally able to break free, we powered down and drifted away to wait out the attack. They were targeting anything that moved, all vessels, regardless of registry. It was only after the Normandy fled that I deemed it safe to move. We made it back here as soon as we could."
"You did the right thing," Xen put her hand on Rilos' shoulder. "You handled the situation as best as could be expected."
Gerrel nodded in agreement. "Indeed. I'll make sure Captain Carn's heroism is noted in the fleet log."
"The geth are gone." Admiral Koris grasped the railing and slumped against it. "What do we do now?"
"We try and contact thim," Castillo tapped at his datapad to send a message to Alliance Command. He cursed mentally as the connection was blocked by quarian comm security. It would have to wait until he returned to the SSV Shenyang. "This can't be the end of the peace talks. Admirals, do you have any way of contacting Commander Shepard directly?"
Gerrel tried his best not to stare at Admiral Koris, now trembling like an old man as he looked over the empty chamber. "What's the point? Shepard had a chance to hand over the geth and he bolted."
"But why would he do such a thing?" Raan asked. "He has always favored reconciliation between quarian and geth. He's risked his life and career for it."
"Maybe he decided it wasn't worth it after all," Xen said. "You put far too much faith in alien goodwill, Shala. No offense to our distinguished guest."
If Castillo was offended, he didn't show it, but that was a key part of being an ambassador. "None taken, Admiral. Still, we need to hear Shepard's side of the story. He must have had good reason to retreat with the geth. Perhaps he felt they were in danger."
"Perhaps," Raan stared at Xen, who returned her gaze with an empty smile. "Please, come with me, Ambassador. We'll attempt to raise the Normandy from the bridge."
"Excellent, Admrial Raan, Thank you." Castillo slid his datapad inside a vest pocket. "Might I be able to contact the Shenyang as well? I would like to make sure all the facts are available to us."
"Of course," Raan said and lead the ambassador off the dais. Koris followed wordlessly behind.
"Admirals, Ambassador," Eric said, bringing his drone down closer to the departing dignitaries. "Any comment on today's developments?"
Xen watched from the platform above until Gerrel caught her eye. "A word, Daro? Rilos, you're dismissed," he said.
"Yes sir," Rilos said, saluted, and made for the chamber exit, relieved to be excused.
Xen and Gerrel walked slowly toward the Admiral's Chamber, their footfalls echoing in the now empty Assembly Garden. "Well, another day gone," Gerrel said with a shake of his head. "I'm not sure how much more of this the Conclave is going to take. Their patience is running out."
"If it gets us closer to peace it's worth the effort," Xen said as they passed through the chamber's threshold. She nodded to Gerrel as he politely held the hatch open, then stepped through behind her.
"Absolutely," Gerrel agreed. When the hatch sealed shut, he marched right up behind Xen, his voice quivering with rage. "Have you gone completely mad? When you said you had a plan to capture the geth, you didn't say anything about destroying a space station! What by the gods were you thinking?"
Xen leaned against the meeting table and drummed her claws against its surface. She had of course been informed of the geth's departure and the attack on Dashta mere minutes after it happened. Fortunately Rilos was enough of a political animal that Xen knew exactly how to earn his compliance. She might not be able to make him an admiral, but she always had slots on her staff for people who were willing to cooperate. "I was thinking that as soon as Shepard figured out what we were planning, he'd do everything in his power to stop it. So I let it be known to certain parties on Omega that the Normandy was going to Dashta to prevent any future interference."
"Do you know how many people have been killed?" Gerrel spun Xen around by her shoulder. "Civilians! Non-combatants! One of our own captains!"
"Don't be naive. Most of that death toll comes from the bodies of dead mercenaries-"
"Most of them?"
"-at the hands of Commander Shepard, who would otherwise be using those considerable talents against us. He needed to be removed from the equation for this to work, Han. Do you think he'd sit idly by and just assume the geth let us return home out of the goodness of their hearts, which they don't even have? That he wouldn't become suspicious that the geth spontaneously and voluntarily returned themselves to our control?"
"You talk about Shepard like he's an enemy. He's an honorable soldier and a friend of this fleet!"
Xen stared at Gerrel, hard. "A friend of the fleet wouldn't take sides with our worst enemy, and then take them aboard as crew. A friend of the fleet wouldn't have concealed the one hope we have of taking back the homeworld while avoiding terrible losses to our people. It took us weeks to recover the research on the Alarei, to piece together what was left behind. Had Shepard stepped forward, as a friend, we'd be standing on Rannoch right now."
She turned back to the table. "Damn Rael for getting himself killed. And damn that daughter of his as well. Fawning all over an alien like some star-struck adolescent. Not understanding he would probably vomit in her face if he saw any deeper than the curves of her suit. She should have fought her exile down to her last implant, yet she's embraced her new name as if it were her birthship's! Worse than that, she's parading around with those gods-begotten machines like they're her clan! She's forgotten what it means to be quarian."
Gerrel's face fell. Tali, he thought. Your best friend's jewel of a daughter. What would Rael think of his little girl if he saw her now? Daro'Xen was many things, manipulative, conniving, but also a shrewd judge of character. If Rael'Zorah had not died on the Alarei, what would he think of his daughter galavanting around on a human starship, a Cerberus flagged one at that? Nothing much mattered to Gerrel beyond who was a friendly and who was a target, but even to his tired old eyes, he could see how Tali worshiped the deck on which Shepard walked and it made even him uncomfortable.
But where Xen was most correct was that Tali'Zorah now called the geth, Legion, a friend, which was what got this whole rotten peace process started to begin with. What would Rael have thought of any of this? Would he have taken his daughter's side? Gerrel had warned Xen against any action that could harm Tali, but now he could almost imagine Admiral Zorah standing behind Xen, nodding sagely as she made her case.
Xen looked back at Gerrel. "And maybe you have, too. I don't know why I have to explain any of this to you. We're not doing this for glory, or conquest, or any of your antiquated notions of honor. We're taking back our home. This is the survival of our people, Han. It comes before anything else."
Gerrel's finger was centimeters from Xen's faceplate. "Don't lecture me about serving the people. I was flying combat patrols when you were still taking formula in your bubble."
"Then why cry for a hundred aliens while tens of thousands of our own people die each year we rot in deep space, inside aging hulks filled with failing machinery, when the means to save our people is within our grasp?"
"How is it still in our grasp? Your plan failed, Xen! Your virus is still unproven! We don't have any geth for testing! And if Commander Shepard ever figures out you betrayed him... Gods help us all."
Xen took a deep breath. Antagonizing her only ally on the board wouldn't benefit anyone. She needed to keep things unemotional and logical. Then, she knew, Gerrel would listen. "Yes, my plan failed. While some of the things I have done have may be morally questionable, it has all been for the good of the fleet. Making unpleasant decisions is part of being quarian. But all is not lost. We may not have gathered our specimens, but we have put an end to the Conclave's desire for negotiation. After this latest insult, I think we can swing the vote our way, even if the Ambassador can convince the geth to try again."
"Maybe so," Gerrel said. "But what does that buy us? They'll be able to confirm an admiral amenable to attack in what, a day? A week? The fleet is in position to strike, but this ruse of a training maneuvers will only last for so long. We need to go soon, if we're going to go at all."
Xen tugged at her veil, smoothing out a wrinkle. "I know. But I promise you, an armed invasion of the homeworld can be avoided if we can simply find a way to get the virus into a geth hub. It's worth the effort, Han. Think of the bloodshed that could be avoided. Please give me the time I need to come up with an alternative."
Gerrel regarded the woman with a reluctant stare, followed by a sigh. "If it means saving the lives of my soldiers, then you've got it. I'll back you any way I can. But we are fighting time itself here, Daro. There may never be another chance like this to strike." With that, he turned on his heel and out the hatch.
Daro'Xen sat against the conference table and rubbed her neck, which meant snaking her hands around the circulation tubes that connected her helmet to her suit's central circulatory system. Her entire life she always dreamed of what it must have been like to live without these infernal suits. Every other species in the galaxy could roam free, do as they would without fear of coming into contact with something as innocuous as a drinking glass and worrying if it would kill them.
We were so close, she thought. Had the geth simply boarded the Giraf, all geth would have been under quarian control within hours and the Migrant Fleet would be on its way home... and the Normandy would not have been around to stop it. It's not that she wanted Shepard dead. In fact, she admired the human and his crew in many ways. But if she was sure of one thing, it was that Commander Shepard would stop at nothing to prevent the quarians from regaining control of the geth. And if she had to choose between a human and his crew or her people, there was no choice at all. It was as she told Han'Gerrel only moments before...Making unpleasant decisions was part of being quarian.