Sins of the Mothers
For someone now into her early thousands by human standards, Matriarch Naranna still had plenty of bounce left in her step as she ascended the white marble stairs to the Grand Quorum, a six-story circular arena built not for combat but the greatest competitive sport for of the asari: debate. Built millennia ago, expanded through the centuries and augmented with technology as time passed, it was the oldest structure in consistent use in the state of Fiatela, and the second oldest on the entire planet of Thessia. Asari of all stages stepped out of the way to allow the elder Matriarch to pass, as she was as revered as the ancient building she now entered. She moved slowly, one step at a time, her simple green tunic and robes covering skin that was still as blue as the day she was born.
Sunlight shown through the Quorum's mighty columns into the outer ring which surrounded the main arena. Giant holo screens adorned the inner wall, in place so that anyone could see bios of the current speaker and her opponent, detailed statistical breakdown of attendants and feeds from the quorums of other Republics as they joined in the debates. While stocks, commodities and futures drove commerce between worlds, the currency of Thessia was ideas.
But the holo screens were dark, with a scant few displaying "NO SIGNAL." Naranna looked toward the main information hub where a group of technicians calmly inspected the equipment with omnitools and other diagnostic equipment, while all about them asari queued patiently to receive chamber assignments and debate schedules. In spite of the chaos and inconvenience, there was no shouting, no shoving or cross words. The debates had been going on for thousands of years through all manor of calamities, long before electricity had ever been discovered and somehow their ancestors managed. Technology may fail, but tradition always triumphed. Naranna smiled, but it was for the sole benefit of the asari greeting her as she passed. She knew the real reason the screens were down, and if decorum didn't demand it, she'd be running to her chambers as fast as her frail legs could carry her.
Naranna passed by the entrances to the main bowl, nodding to her colleagues on her way to her private suite. Unusually, there were two security guards in front of the sliding glass door instead of one, and they bowed their heads as they simultaneously keyed in the code to let her pass. She smiled at the receptionist inside sitting behind a desk in front a floor-to-ceiling holoscreen as dark as the ones outside. She pointed a thin finger at the inactive display. "This seems more serious than someone tripping over a power cord. Is the entire Quorum experiencing this outage?"
"Yes, Madam," the receptionist said. "Information Services says the entire complex is having a general network failure."
"'General network failure,'" Naranna repeated, though without any irritation. "Sounds suspiciously non-specific. So they don't know the cause yet?"
"Or when we'll be back up?"
Naranna drummed her fingers on the desk and smiled. "I see. Well, please have Donia report to my office. I believe a review of our terms of service with our infrastructure contractor is in order."
"Yes madam, Miss Toma is already waiting for you."
"Ah, excellent," Naranna patted the receptionist's hand as she walked slowly past. "Infernal machines only slow us down anyway. I'm expecting Matriarch Collona soon. Please let me know when they arrive."
Naranna's smile faded as soon as she passed the desk. Two more guards stood post on either side of her chamber door off the main atrium. She passed through. Bright blue sky flooded through the floor-to-ceiling windows on the outside wall and sunlight glinted from the surface of the highly polished hardwood table at its center. Thousands of years old, the great meeting table had borne silent witness to uncounted debates amongst some of the asari's most revered philosophers and thinkers. It was in stark contrast to the sharp corners and modern lines of the more contemporary furniture and equipment that surrounded it.
Donia Toma stood on the other side, omnitool out, a dire scowl on her face. Donia was shorter and more squat than most asari, a look only enhanced by the dark gray power armor she wore, especially with the heavy SMG now on her hip.
"I appreciate your discretion in your notification,'" Naranna said. Donia bowed slightly. "So tell me about this 'network outage."
"We've been breached." Donia said after the door closed. "Our networks have been completely compromised. Completely, madam. I've never seen anything like it. They hit us so fast across so many parallel entry points that we had to bring down all peripheral networks in the Quorum. Our network engineers are still trying to sort it out."
"Do you know who it was?"
"Not yet. We're working on it. Whoever did it was very good at covering their tracks. But Matriarch, with the speed at which they penetrated our network defenses and took control of our own systems... They had to be working with someone on the inside. I've called in all of the staff under the guise of helping with the outage and am having everyone questioned."
"Good," Naranna said. "But so far I'm not hearing anything that warrants a face-to-face discussion. We got hacked. It happens."
Donia cleared her throat. "There was a physical penetration into a restricted area as well."
Naranna heard the words but it took her brain a moment to comprehend them. "What?"
"Apparently, our LOKI security force was compromised during the attack. They overwhelmed the guards and forced their way into the third-floor archives." Donia projected a recording of the security feed from her omnitool. As they watched, a stream of the mechanical servants marched past another receptionist desk as the attendant tried fruitlessly to press the alarm, but found herself pinned by two of the droids. One of the LOKI then went to work around the security panel as the rest formed a wall, face out, around it.
"Once open, several of the mechs entered and attempted to interface with the secure network via the terminals there. From examining the data access logs from those locations, it appears they succeeded before Internal Security broke through and put them down."
Naranna breathed a sigh of relief. "But none of the androids left the archive with the data? Goddess bless network segregation." For some reason Donia did not share her relieved expression.
"When the LOKI penetrated the secure network," Donia explained, "they were in direct communication with the LOKI blocking the hall outside, who were in turn connected to the unsecured network. I'm sorry, Matriarch, but the secure network was exposed for almost three minutes before IntSec was able to terminate the connection." She fast forwarded the security feed to a view of a corridor choked with smoke, with armored commandos walking over the blasted shells of the decimated LOKI security force. "Fortunately, no one was injured. And they could have been. All of the LOKI's were carrying their standard loadout. This could have been a massacre of terrible proportions, but they didn't fire. I guess whoever had control couldn't tap the weapon systems."
Naranna felt her head go light and she staggered against the wall behind her. Donia was at her side in an instant and walked her to a plush black leather chair at the closest edge of the massive table. "Do we know what information was taken?"
"Yes we do," Donia pulled up her omnitool. "Whoever it was must have realized they were going to have access only for a short time, so their search queries were very specific. They were looking for any information relating to the geth."
Naranna sat up to look at the security chief's omni, the color drained from her face. "The geth? Let me see." Donia waited patiently as the elder Matriarch grabbed her wrist and scrolled through page after page of data, with documents going back to before the geth uprising, then leaned back in her chair.
Donia switched off her tool and shook her head. "I reviewed the data that was compromised. There's nothing sensitive... They put in a lot of effort to get what amounts to a university level history course."
"Incredible," Naranna murmured. "No one knows about this?"
"We've kept it completely contained, thanks in part to having to shut down all the networks. They're still down as we look for any little surprises left by the intruders."
Naranna rubbed her temples. "Keep it quiet as long as you can. Have maintenance pull the records on the security mechs and have legal start investigating options for lawsuits against the manufacturer for providing faulty equipment."
"Ma'am," Donia scowled. "Did I not make myself clear? Someone breached our security. This wasn't the result of faulty hardware."
The Matriarch gazed upon Donia with half-lidded eyes. "Maybe I didn't make myself clear. No word of this is to go beyond this room. I have heard and understand your report. I'm telling you I don't want anyone knowing our security mechs are vulnerable to hacking. Do you understand?"
"Yes madam. What about the search?"
The Matriarch, now lost in thought, seemed irritated at the question. "What?"
"The search for the perpetrators. How do you want it handled?"
"Oh. However you think is best, your discretion. You may go. But leave your omnitool."
"Your omnitool, please. With the networks down I can't very well pull up a copy of this can I?"
"No, madam," Donia unfastened her omnitool's wrist clamp and handed it to Naranna. "Of course not."
"You may go."
Donia nodded and walked for the door. Whatever the reason behind the Matriarch's lack of concern over the investigation, Donia welcomed it. At your discretion allowed a lot of latitude to do what needed to be done. While the lack of her omnitool would slow the process down, it was of little use with all the local network access points shut down anyway. Besides, was she going to say no to her Matriarch?
When she got to the door and opened it, she stepped aside immediately at the sight of another elderly asari, dressed in a flamboyant red and white robe covered with semi-precious stones that glimmered in the sunlight. A silk net embedded with similar stones draped across her scalp.
Donia bowed. "Matriarch Collona."
"Donia," Collona smiled down at the squat security chief as she walked through. From the look in her eyes, Collona already knew what was going on and the smile was just a platitude.
Naranna swiveled her chair around to face her counterpart and give Donia her final dismissal.
Collona's facade dropped the instant the door closed and the security locks re-engaged. "I heard the secure network was breached? What did they get?"
"Have a look for yourself," Naranna sighed and handed over the security officer's omnitool.
Collona took the omnitool and switched on the screen without placing it over her wrist. Donia's last document was still in place. After a few seconds of searching, Collona scowled. "That's it?"
"That's it," Naranna repeated and waited for Collona to wander down the same mental path she had traversed minutes before. "They were looking for it specifically, based on the queries they ran."
"Why would anyone look up information about the geth?" Collona took a seat next to Naranna and placed the tool on the table so they both could see. "Anything that could link us to them was purged centuries ago."
"Other than the two of us," Naranna said with a thin smile.
"Do you know who's responsible?"
Naranna reached out and opened the network administrator's initial report on the omnitool. Alongside the text readout played an animation of the cyberattack as it progressed through the Quorum's subsystems. Infected nodes blossomed in dozens of locations and spread like a plague across the schematic, disabling alarms and firewalls along the way, and finding alternate routes when blocked. Collona had to blink her eyes clear when she saw the timestamp indicating how long it took for the public networks to be totally overwhelmed. Four seconds, she thought. Against the most advanced hardware and software security available on Thessia, it took them four seconds to break through.
Naranna leaned back with her hands on her lap, exuding a sense of calm she didn't feel in the least. "Recognize the pattern?"
"Geth," Collona blinked a few times and switched off the omnitool. "The geth were here. Goddess! How... How did they know where to find us?"
Naranna scowled at the other Matriarch's lapse of composure. She pushed herself to her feet and staggered toward the windows leaning against the table as she went. "One of two ways. Either they found Lessia on Rannoch, or someone sent them knocking on our door. And I think if they found Lessia, they would have done more than knock."
Collona looked up. "No one was killed?"
"Not that I'm aware of. No geth were actually here. They used our own LOKI's against us and staged an essentially bloodless raid."
"It's like I've always told you." Tears began to form in Collona's eyes. "They're not killers."
"Not today," Naranna told the weeping woman. "But your children still killed over seventeen billion people."
"They never wanted to kill anyone," Collona rasped. "They learned it from us. You couldn't resist blaming me then and you can't now. You have a dark soul, Naranna. We haven't spoken of this in fifty years and you can't resist digging your knife in the same wound. As usual I have to remind you that none of this could have happened without the the willing consent of the Citadel Council." She pointed a bony finger adorned with a gaudy, shield-shaped ring. "And everyone who sits at this table knows it... Councilor."
Naranna stared into the park below, its beautiful fountain spraying foam into the breeze. Mothers and daughters sat on benches and fed birds while white, puffy clouds drifted across the sky. Fiatela's skyline sparkled in the distance, the tallest of its towers disappearing behind those same clouds. She closed her eyes. "The quarians' fate was the result of their own arrogance and hubris. They were oh-so-clever in getting around the very laws that would have prevented the disaster which wiped them out. I can't tell you how many times their Chancellor came before us in person and swore upon the lives of his children that no AI research would ever take place. I understand the arrogant bastard died in the first wave."
She shook her head. "We never should have agreed to allow testing to continue. 'But no,' Councilor Yashir said, 'their research into distributed computing is too valuable to abandon.' Salarian seasons are short. What do they know about consequences? And the turians? Primarch Valkerus couldn't wait to give his generals a synthetic army and a fleet of ships that could think for themselves, and Councilor Tiburkan always followed orders. They overruled me, two to one. They thought having inspectors and advisers on site to monitor the quarians' progress would keep things from getting out of hand," she cast a meaningful look at Collona. "We all know how well that worked out." She laughed humorlessly and walked slowly back to the table. "Arrogance and hubris. Flaws not exclusive to the quarians."
Collona closed her eyes, once again causing tears to dribble down her cheeks. "But they're the only ones who paid for it."
Naranna sat across the table from the other Matriarch. "And what would you have us do? Confess? Issue an an apology? The Citadel is already in chaos because of those idiot humans and their own special brand of arrogance and hubris. The Council can't withstand another scandal of this magnitude. It couldn't then, it won't now. If we could have acted in concert during the uprising maybe it could have been stopped. But no one wanted to take responsibility. No one had to. The geth took care of it for us. Rannoch fell. The dead cannot be resurrected. But what if it were to come out now? Who do you think will take the blame? Every turian and salarian who was involved or even had knowledge of our involvement died centuries ago. They'll have show trials and condemnations, but all the perpetrators have been lost to time. There will be no one left to blame. Except for us."
She watched Collona's eyes and let that thought sink in. She could tell it was having the desired effect. "The asari have been maintaining the balance for thousands of years. The other species look to us as the guardians of peace and and champions of diplomacy. We are an example to all of them, of what they can achieve, and all of that will be lost. But it's not just our galactic reputation that's in jeopardy. Our culture, the spirit of our society will be shattered to the very foundation. What would be brought down could never be rebuilt again. We witnessed the destruction of one culture. I won't watch it happen again, especially not to our own."
Collona rotated the ring around her finger. "So what do we do?"
"Whatever is necessary to protect the asari. The geth haven't found Lissia. If they had, they wouldn't have come here looking for information."
"But they did come here," Collona said. "That can't be coincidence."
"No. As I said before, someone must have sent them," Naranna and reached over to a comm panel embedded in the table, then remembered that it, along with all of the other networking equipment, was still offline. She sat back down. "Counselor Tevos reported that her operative shadowing the Normandy is overdue, and that both have ships have disappeared. And there are geth on the Normandy. That can't be coincidence, either."
"Tevos assured us that Enlea T'vari had no information that could compromise us. She was involved in Citadel operations only."
A cold chill sent shivers up and down Naranna's spine. If her suspicions were true, this breach in security wasn't going to be the last. "Come now, Collona, you know better than anyone the geth's ability to piece together information."
Collona ran her finger across the ridge of her shield ring and Naranna's face and voice faded to nothing.
Collona raced up the stairs holding Shima under her shoulder with Lorris ahead of them as another vibration racked the stairway. They felt, rather than heard the explosion underfoot as they could hear little else over the screech of the fire alarm. A deep cut on Shima's right shin above her leather split-toe boot spattered blood on the concrete step, re-opened by the fall. Collona stopped and pulled her up by her waist. The quarian woman's blue hood flipped back, exposing long, wavy black hair that under normal circumstances was kept in a neat ponytail but now billowed around her head like a frazzled mane. Shima's palm was damp with sweat as her two fingers clasped Collona's hand and she got to her feet.
Lorris turned around and stepped back down, his own short gray hair tousled and speckled with debris, his reflective eyes flashing in emergency lights. "I got her, I got her," he said as he put Shima's arm over his shoulder. He was a frail man in his nineties, but he couldn't stand to watch any more. "Go help your sister!"
"Thanks Mister Kygah," Collona said and leaned over the railing. She still couldn't see very far down the narrow center of the stairway but at least the smoke was thinner now. "Liss!"
A blue asari face poked over the rail two floors below. "Right behind you! How much further!"
"Uhh," Collona looked around for some indication of where she was. "I'm at seventy four! Only six more to go! I'm coming back."
"Like hell you are, get to the roof!"
A sudden shock pitched the floor beneath Collona's feet. Dust and chipped paint fell from above, and dozens of screams echoed throughout the stairway. This time, they did hear the explosion. "Liss," she shouted again and pelted back down the stairs. She passed another dazed quarian pulling himself up the railings, his business wrap and hood coated with dust. "Lissia!"
"I'm right here," Lissia snapped from the next landing down. A tall, athletic woman, Lissia eschewed traditional asari garb for her own style of dress, a red quarian robe adorned with all manor of cheap synthetic stones. She carried two large sacks over her back and a heavy satchel. "Dammit, I told you to get upstairs!"
"Did you?" Collona took the heavy satchel from her sister's hands and reached for one of the sacks slung over her back. "I couldn't hear over the sirens."
Lissia waved her away. "I got these. We gotta get the hell out of here."
Collona laughed with the relief of seeing her sister. "Right in front of you. You gonna make it?"
"Yeah, yeah," Lissia panted. "Got it."
The boots of the two asari pounded up the stairs. There was no more talk, as every breath was needed to carry the load and themselves to the top. They reached a door labelled "ROOF ACCESS" and pushed it open. They squinted into the bright sunlight and saw a flat rooftop covered by solar panels and HVAC blocks.
"Over here!" shouted a quarian voice. They turned to the right where two dozen quarians in dirty office attire waited to board a four-engine VTOL transport twenty meters away. A pair of marines in full combat armor helped them up. Lissia and Collona staggered as quickly as they could.
"Colly!" Shima reached out from where she leaned against a panel block. Her shin still dripped blood. "I was so scared when I didn't see you come out after us!"
"Had to go back for this idiot." Collona jerked a thumb at her sister. "All that time in the gym and she can only carry two thirty kilo bags up twenty flights of stairs."
Lissia set her heavy load on the ground and smiled tiredly. "You always carry enough weight for the both of us. How can you live on a dextro planet and still gain weight?"
"Hey, listen!" Jory'Sargar, a broker at First Trager, Inc. on the sixtieth floor waved to get everyone's attention. He held a small radio up to his ear and shouted to be heard over the VTOL's engines. "Listen! It's not just happening here! They're everywhere! Elima, New Drioli, Neema, they're all under attack! All over the surface, and even the colonies!"
Cries of shock rippled through the crowd. "How?" someone shouted. "They said the geth were only here this morning, and they had been contained!"
"There's more of them than we thought," Jory shouted. "Latest report said they're making more of themselves! There's tens of thousands more, a hundred thousand here alone!"
Collona's stomach fell. The previous nights' estimate was that the rebellion would be contained in a few hours... but that was based on the four-to-six thousand platforms. The geth must have gained access to manufacturing centers and factories and transmitted themselves offworld. She would have been excited at the prospect of seeing machines reproduce, except if they got past the Tikkun relay... She turned to Lissia, but she wasn't there. Her sister had gone to the rear of the VTOL, next to Deara T'Siem, their team project manager.
"We've got to get the rest of them," Deara said, tears in her eyes.
"How many more?" Lissa sucked a knuckle on her right hand and wiped the blood from a cut on her dirty wrap.
"Four. It's a two person job."
Collona between at the two of them. "How many more what?"
Lissa clamped her eyes tightly at the sight of her younger sister and shook her head. "Don't worry about it."
"Prototypes," Deara said, "Asari-style models for when we go into production on Thessia. They're down in the lab."
"That's twenty-six floors," Collona said, her eyes wide. "One way!"
"We gotta do it," Deara said, crying openly now. "We can't let anyone get hold of them. They can't be found here. They've got our stampings, the blueprints, the fabrication plans... Nobody can see them. Not the quarians, not the customs officers, not the geth."
Lissia doubled over, trying to catch her breath. "Goddess, no. You know how good they are at piecing together data... Last thing we need are a bunch of asari geth running around."
Collona looked at her boss and her sister, who was also her best friend. "Okay, okay. With all three of us, it'll go a whole lot quicker."
"No," Lissia said, standing upright. "Deara and I are senior. We'll do it."
"That's right," Deara said, instantly switching back into manager mode. In the decades they knew her, Deara never let someone do a dirty job for her. "Grab what we've got here and get on that ship. There still survivors coming up, we'll get out on the next one."
"No fucking way," it was now Collona's turn to cry. "I'm not leaving without you!"
Lissa grabbed her by the shoulders. "You've got to get those bags out of here, do you hear me? And you can't let anybody see what's inside. Destroy them if you have to... It's important, Colly. You can't believe how important. We'll get out on the next one, okay? We'll meet you at the spaceport."
Collona stared into her sister's eyes. They should have both been well into the matron stage of their lives, but instead chose career over family... and now they were they only family they had left.
"It's important," Lissia said again.
"Okay," Collona said and reached out to hug her sister. The two asari held each other for a few seconds. Then everyone on the roof them jumped when a pair of quarian strike fighters streaked by at eye-level near supersonic speed.
"We'd better hurry," Deara said. She patted Collona's shoulder as she passed. "Get 'em out of here, Colly."
"Yes ma'am," Collona said and watched as her sister followed their boss back to the emergency stairwell. Lissia turned and waved, then shouted something that got drowned out by the nearby VTOL engines. Collona didn't need to hear it to know what she said. "I love you!" Collona mouthed back. She rushed around to the side of the transport where the last of the passengers were being loaded and slung the heavy satchel onto the lip of the cargo deck.
"Leave it!" the quarian marine sitting in the door shouted from behind his gas mask. "Personnel only!"
"This is valuable research!" Collona said and held up the ID badge clipped to her tunic. "This might help us fight them!"
The marine jumped down from his perch, lifted both of the remaining bags on his shoulders and heaved them onto the deck. He hopped back up and offered a gloved hand to the asari. She took it, realizing the soldier was wearing full chemical protection gear, complete with a sealed mask. She was about to ask why when the door slammed shut and the transport pitched to one side. The bags containing the prototype slid against the wall, and she heard a metallic clank hit the deck. She reached down to make sure the bags was still closed, and her fingers closed around a metal hoop. She pulled it up to see that goddess-awful trashy piece of costume jewelry Lissia always insisted on wearing. She thought back to their conversation behind the VTOL, how her sister had cut her finger. The ring must have done it while she was carrying the prototypes up the stairs.
"Dear gods in heaven," came a shout from behind. She looked over her shoulder and saw Jory's face against the glass. She looked out the window next to her, as did everyone else on their side of the plane. Below, fires raged throughout the city sending giant columns of black smoke into the sky. Muzzle flashes flickered in the streets and through the smoke like static. Giant crab-legged machines crushed the cars and trucks in their path as they pounded through the streets. Heavy construction mechs towered above the destruction, their drills, buckets, and grappling arms replaced with autocannons and energy weapons that slashed into retreating infantry and armor, hell bent on destroying what they had been repairing only weeks before.
She closed her eyes and pressed the ring to her lips. With a city dying below, all she could think of was how much she wanted to get the stupid ring back to her sister.
Collona shook her head and looked about. Matriarch Naranna was still at the table, but four more Matriarchs of the Order were now seated as well. Naranna was talking to the others but glanced occasionally towards Collona. Collona closed her eyes, oblivious to what they were saying around her. The only indication she was awake was the rubbing of her thumb against the shield shaped ring on her finger.