For the crew of the SSV Shenyang, the past two weeks had been an exercise in frustration. The sole human ship in the Migrant Fleet, representing the Systems Alliance, it had been the focus attention for the governments, militaries and press corps of every species in the galaxy since the negotiations between the geth and quarians went public. For Captain Robert Cramb it was a dubious and unwanted honor. After the the abduction of thousands of human colonists, most Alliance ships were combing the Traverse for the culprits. But the Shenyang stayed on station in this dark corner of the ass-end of space babysitting a diplomatic mission that no one really cared about.
Until hackers broke the geth comm codes and everything went to hell, that is. The paper pushers at the Council went off their rockers because humans were interfering in a centuries-old Citadel matter. As if that wasn't enough, the whole mess with Cerberus flared up at the same time, with covert agents turning up at every level of Alliance Command, and the Council voted to expel Admiral Anderson from its ranks. Just to make things more interesting, Commander Shepard decided to make a grand re-appearance at the Sahrabarik relay in a Cerberus-flagged ship.
And what an event that was... With the Alliance and Turian fleets nose to nose at Sahrabarik, just waiting an excuse to hold a grudge match for the First Contact War, an alien ship appeared and kicked the living crap out of everything in range until the Normandy arrived on scene. Six hours later, a joint Citadel and Alliance task force jumped through the Omega Four relay and both Alliance Command and the Council issued orders for both forces to resume combined operations across the galaxy as if the rift between humanity and the Citadel had never happened.
Cramb and his fellow officers on the Shenyang combed the secure networks for whatever information they could find. They made inquiries to other ships, called in favors, contacted every single drinking buddy who might have a clue as to what was going on. Most of Fleet seemed to be in the dark, and those who did know weren't talking. But one word kept coming up, never on the record, always referenced as rumor and hearsay.
No one knew exactly from where, or who it would be, only that the threat originated from somewhere outside of the Milky Way. Whatever was coming scared the daylights out of anyone with high enough clearance to know the truth. Yet the Shenyang, newly commissioned on her maiden voyage, floated amongst the greatest mobile scrap yard the galaxy had ever seen instead of preparing for the battle the rest of the galaxy thought was coming.
Maybe that's about to change, Cramb thought as he hunched over his comm officer's station. At 193 cm, he had to crouch in many of the cramped spaces on his ship, but it was a small price to pay for his first command. "What have you got?"
"Message from the geth, sir," Lieutenant JG Czerniak pulled the display up on her primary monitor. "First communication we've had since they went dark. Short and to the point."
Negotiations suspended indefinitely. Shared communication protocols terminated.
Czerniak looked up with hope in her eyes. "That mean we're done here?"
Cramb shrugged as he read the simple text message again. "Well the Conclave already called it quits and so it makes sense the geth are hanging it up. I don't see how Ambassador Castillo is going to be able to justify staying. Hard to negotiate when both sides have left the table."
"Yes sir," Czerniak's smile glowed in the reflected light from her panels in the darkened compartment. But for some reason her CO didn't share her enthusiasm. "Something wrong, sir?"
Cramb gripped the handholds above the comm station and frowned. "I don't know. All of these movements we've been seeing in the Migrant Fleet lately. Training exercises and security rotations they've been having. Just as both sides give up and walk away... Coincidence? Or something else?" He reached out and pulled up the last passive sensor scan on Czerniak's console. Though the Shenyang was still on the fringe of the quarian Flotilla, its targeting systems registered over five hundred contacts within one thousand kilometers in all directions. He zoomed out and the smattering of white dots around the ship coalesced into a fuzzy, spherical cloud almost five hundred thousand klicks in diameter. Compared with the scan an hour ago, he estimated seven out of ten ships had changed position. The Alliance force screening onlookers at the Raheel-Leyya relay looked awfully far away.
He glanced through the overhead window and wondered how many of the glittering lights around them were actually ships. "Get on the horn with Arcturus. Let them know about the geth. And that the quarians may be on the move."
A pale white hand snaked from behind the asari's waist and cupped her bulbous, blue breast. Ruby red lips nibbled at her ear, and she closed her eyes and bit her lower lip as a low moan escaped from deep inside. She turned her head so she could kiss those lips back, luxuriating in the feel of soft, curly red hair of the human female behind her against her cheek. She guided the woman's free hand lower, across her smooth, bare abdomen to the apex between her legs, spread wide across the pelvis of the human male lying beneath them.
She opened her eyes under heavy lids to see the human beneath stare back with piercing, glowing eyes, devoid of passion or any emotion at all as he took a long drag from a cigarette. He casually tapped into the ashtray built into the headboard of the king sized bed, never looking away or even blinking. She rocked her hips back and forth and felt him throb beneath her, but his expression remained blank as he took another puff. A soft chime sounded and he sat up with the cigarette hanging from his lips, then brought a shiny metallic device to her neck and her entire world winked away into darkness.
The Illusive Man caught the young asari by her shoulders and gently lowered her to the soft mattress beside him. The red-headed woman behind clutched her arms around her naked torso and winced at the sudden chill. "Oh come on! Now?"
"I'm afraid so," the Illusive Man offered his cigarette to the girl.
She snatched it with her hand and sucked on it with all her might, all the while giving him an accusatory glare. She coughed twice and fanned her face. "Okay, okay, hit me!"
He touched the stun gun to her neck, and her body fell as if switched off. He laid the red-head down on his right, opposite of where the asari lay, careful to keep the still-lit cigarette from touching the silk sheets. He rolled over her body without dropping an ash and bent to the floor to retrieve his shirt. "What is it?" he asked into the air.
"Report from the Shenyang," a disembodied voice said. Human, also female. "The geth have terminated negotiations."
"Did they give a reason?"
"And what of the ambassador," the Illusive Man buttoned his shirt, then looked around for his pants.
"Still on the Rayya, but that won't be the case for long. The Shenyang is monitoring unusual movements by the quarian navy. Official word it's a training exercise, but analysis of the positioning of supply vessels and fleet tenders suggest a large scale surge is imminent. We estimate the order for Castillo's recall will be issued very soon, assuming the quarians don't expel him first."
The Illusive Man paused to draw from his cigarette. "Then we will lose the only asset we've ever successfully placed in the Flotilla. Put me through to the Xenophon. Doctor Archer." He walked to the end of the bed to the dresser beyond the bed. Like all the other furniture in the suite, it was 17th century English oak, darkly stained, ornately carved and immaculately kept. He turned his head and smoothed his graying hair in the mirror above.
"Archer here," said the AI project lead.
"Doctor. It appears the quarian navy is about to strike. I can only assume the target is Rannoch. Is it possible Admiral Xen has succeeded in upgrading the virus?"
There was a pregnant pause on the other end of the line, and the Illusive Man could hear panic in the Doctor's voice. "No! Impossible! Xen doesn't have the new code base."
"Perhaps she is still unaware there's been a change."
"Then her fleet will be in for quite a shock when they arrive at Rannoch. Let them throw themselves at the geth. It may provide the distraction we need."
The Illusive Man scowled. "The quarians cannot be allowed to attack. Especially if Xen is not ready. The geth would further harden their networks in response to the attempt and the opportunity to assume control could be jeopardized. Tell the captain to take the Xenophon to the injection point at Ma-At. You will join the neutralization team there and await further orders."
"You want us to attack the quarians?" Archer said. "Need I remind you that the Xenophon is not a combat vessel? And we are not a soldiers!"
"We are all soldiers when it comes to the fight to save humanity," The Illusive Man said to his own reflection. He would have to review Archer's status after the fall of the geth. Though brilliant, the Doctor lacked commitment when personal involvement became necessary. "Where do we stand on our efforts?"
"We still lack an upgraded specimen and can't proceed without one."
"Leave that to me." The Illusive Man crushed out his cigarette in a finely sculpted ashtray on the dresser. "The Ma-At lab facility will soon be abandoned, and the attack by the quarian navy aborted. Once the Normandy has been drawn out of hiding, we can seize your specimen and proceed uninterrupted. Perhaps even use the quarian's research to augment our own."
"Really. How do you intend to accomplish all of this?"
"Your only concern is to see that your team is prepared for action, Doctor. That will be all." Without waiting for an acknowledgement, The Illusive Man called to the air once more, knowing the communication link with Archer was already severed. "Eva?"
"Yes, sir?" the female voice responded.
"Proceed with Operation Chinnamasta."
The Illusive Man turned back to the two unconscious women on his bed. He walked past them to the matching oak standalone bar in the corner of the room where he pulled a rocks glass from the cabinet, dropped three cubes using tongs from the ice container and poured from an ornate lead crystal decanter labeled "Bourbon." He paused momentarily. It was likely going to be a long night, so he carried it with him as he walked to the door. "Oh, and Eva," he said as he swirled the golden liquid in his glass. "Have the ladies returned to their quarters. I'll be in my office. I may be a while."
"Read it again," Eric Dahlberg kicked his boots up on the rail overlooking Rayya's deserted Assembly Garden, his hands locked behind his envirosuit's helmet as he reclined on the bench.
His assistant Firaz held his omnitool high in front of him and spoke as if reciting a presidential address. "To: Mister Eric Dahlberg, Future Content Correspondent, From: Gloria Akamatsu, Future Content Senior Executive Producer. Effective immediately, return with diplomatic staff to SSV Shenyang..."
Dahlberg's closed his eyes and waved a finger in time to the words.
"...and await transfer via corporate charter pending reassignment to Sahrabarik and Omega-Fucking-Four!"
"Did Glo really say that last part, or is that you?"
"Actually, that was me," Firaz said with a guilty grin behind his suit's mask. "But that's how she should have phrased it."
Dahlberg laughed and clapped his hands. "Gooddamn, and praise the lord! Let my people go!"
"Oh yeah," Firaz looked at his omnitool. "I'm also supposed to tell you... 'Don't forget to get something nice for your father while you're here.' Is it his birthday or something?"
"What the hell am I supposed to get him in this dump? You seen any gift shops around here?"
"You could always until we get to Sahrabarik. Shop someplace with more class, like Omega."
"Ha, right. Doesn't matter, I guess. As long as we're getting out of HERE."
"Hey!" came a shout from the Assembly Garden's floor. A quarian marine in dark crimson armor reached up and slapped Dahlberg's boot, a look of pure rage behind her mask. "Get your feet down from there!"
Dahlberg tilted his head sideways so he could see around his feet and tried to remember her name. Aggeth'Foya? She and the younger marine, Har'Dannis, had been following them around all week.
When Dahlberg didn't move, Foya shoved the human's feet from their perch. "You are in the most important chamber in the Migrant Fleet. You will show respect!"
"Easy now, chief," Dahlberg sat forward and looked over the rail. The marine's counterpart stood next to her, weapon at the ready. "You can relax. The negotiations are over. We'll be out of your hair, or whatever you have underneath there, before you know it."
"Until that time," hissed Foya, "you will show the appropriate respect. Are we clear?"
"Crystal," Dahlberg said and leaned back in his seat. He did not, however, put his feet back on the railing. "From now on, you get all the respect you deserve."
The door behind the Admiral's dais slid open, and Ambassador Castillo walked out with Admirals and Koris close behind. Xen and Gerrel lingered in the open doorway, chatting amongst themselves. The two marines snapped rigidly to attention, with the senior of the pair glaring over her shoulder at Dahlberg. He sighed and stood as well.
"OK here we go," Dahlberg pointed towards the stairs. "Last call! Get the drone up. Stay up here and get the wide angle shots. I'll get the close-ups. And try to keep the reflections off my face this time, huh?"
"You got it," Firaz said and launched the remote camera into the air.
Dahlberg walked past the marines, ignoring the look of disdain from Foya as he approached the dais. While he couldn't read the faces of the admirals, the elder human looked as though he might burst into tears. He glanced up to gauge the best angle to try and catch it in the light. Tears always boosted his ratings.
Han'Gerrel and Daro'Xen faced one another in the open doorway, both standing straight with their hands clasped downward in front of their waists. While their posture denoted casual conversation, the tone of their voices over their private channel was anything but.
"What does the geth withdrawal mean for us?" Gerrel growled.
"Absolutely nothing," Xen replied. "It's not like we're asking permission. The geth are still unaware of our research ship at Ma-At. As soon as I give the order, they will proceed to the geth hub and attempt a direct injection. What's the status of the fleet?"
"The vanguard is in place and is ready move on the Raheel-Leyya relay. The heavies are still moving into position and will be ready within the hour. You're sure the lack of a test subject won't be a problem?"
"The intelligence Tali'Zorah gathered from Haratar indicates that platforms in the hub will be dormant. If our people can approach undetected, they can interface directly. The entire hub will be our test environment."
"If they are undetected," Gerrel grunted. "When will we know if it worked?"
"Almost instantly, though the effects will take time to spread to isolated nodes. But once it reaches the Tikkun Relay there will be no stopping us. Just like that, our enemies will become our friends."
Gerrel exhaled sharply. The Tikkun relay, where no quarian ship had ventured since geth cast them from their home system... "And if it doesn't work?"
"Then we relocate to whatever system will tolerate us," Xen's smile faded. "Just like we've always done. But we won't fail, Han. We can't. Rannoch is within our reach." She noticed the other Admirals staring at them from the dais through the open door. She made a show of guiding Gerrel forward. "Come now, let's join the others. I'd hate to miss the chance to bid the good ambassador farewell."
Koris and Raan watched their counterparts approach as they listened to the human diplomat's impassioned plea. "My friends," Castillo said, "Whatever circumstances transpired to halt the negotiations, there are always possibilities as long as one side is willing to keep trying. This is a setback, not a failure. You have finally communicated for the first time since the uprising. This is the beginning, not the end."
"It is unfortunate," Raan said, "but not unexpected after the Conclave voted to suspend the talks. After all, it is impossible to negotiate unless both sides are listening. But we appreciate your efforts, Mister Ambassador." She turned and smiled pleasantly at Admiral Xen. "Perhaps we will try again, after there is a full accounting of what transpired at Dashta to prevent the geth's arrival."
Xen shrugged. "We can only hope, Shala."
Gerrel stiffened in the awkward silence that followed. If the truth ever did come out, he and Xen would face some very difficult questions. "Rest assured there will be a full investigation. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to talk to Captain Kar'Danna about the ongoing fleet rotation. Safe journeys, Ambassador."
Castillo bowed. "Admiral."
"And I must be returning to my ship," Xen said. "As meaningful and fulfilling as this affair has been, it has been to the detriment of all my other duties. Ambassador Castillo, it has been a pleasure. I wish you a safe journey home." She waved to the two marines on the Garden's floor. "Please escort the Ambassador and his party to the docking bay, and ready my personal runabout."
"Right away, ma'am," Foya replied.
Castillo sighed. He had expected a rapid exit after Captain Cramb relayed the recall order from Arcturus, but he'd hoped for some measure of decorum considering the importance of what had occurred. Yet the quarians seemed almost relieved, as if some horrible ordeal had ended. Even the moderates like Koris and Raan, who actually favored reconciliation, seemed resigned that peace was an impossibility now and were tired of the struggle. He couldn't let it end like this. "Admiral Xen," he called out. "You are departing as well? By any chance would your runabout be in the same direction as our shuttle?"
Xen's eyes narrowed. "Perhaps."
Castillo gestured toward the marine escort flanking the human reporters and bowed deeply. "I would be honored if you would walk with us."
Firaz did his best to tuck in his shoulders and suck in his ample gut as he was pushed along a living river of bodies that flowed through the quarian liveship's corridors. It was hard to do as the bio-suited aliens pressed all around him and he kept feeling around to make sure his equipment pouches and slings didn't slide off, or more likely, get stolen by the throng of aliens whose faces were obscured by masks and veils. The daily march to and from the Assembly Garden to get the quarian shuttle bay was the worst part of the trip. Fortunately, it would be the last time.
The SSV Shenyang was the smallest Alliance ship he'd ever been on, and it amazed him how fifty human beings could occupy such a small space until he saw how the quarians lived, with no concept of personal space or privacy. Now he couldn't wait to get back to his cramped stateroom, a closet really, separated from the main berthing compartment by a roll-up partition. Even though he had to share it with Dahlberg, after enduring the week on a quarian ship it would seem like an isolation ward.
He looked ahead at Ambassador Castillo, walking calmly and confidently through the crowd alongside Admiral Xen, his hands behind his back as if he were on a stroll through a park. They were engaged in a spirited conversation if the flickering light on her helmet was any indication, though he couldn't hear them over the din in the bustling corridor. Ahead of them, Xen's personal escort, four large quarians in armor, helped push through the crowd.
"I went through a great deal of trouble to produce sterilized hard copies of my report for each of you," Castillo said to Xen. "I couldn't help but notice you kept leaving yours on the table every day."
"I'm terribly sorry," Xen replied. "But we have such limited space. A digital copy would have been much easier to transport."
"Which I've also transmitted to you every day, but according to my omnitool has been deleted each time without being opened. But fortunately," Castillo pulled a folio from his satchel. "I still have your copy. If I didn't know better, I'd say you were afraid to read it."
"Not afraid, Mister Ambassador," Xen turned her head away as they walked. "Just not interested. What do you possibly think you can tell us about the geth that we don't already know?"
"That they're not the same geth you know, Admiral. They are so much more than the mindless servants they were created to be."
"They are machines," Xen now faced the ambassador. "Executing instructions based purely on code. Whether this code was generated by us or the geth themselves does not matter. Your omnitool is capable of limited self-programming. It's still nothing more than an appliance."
Castillo held the folio out to Xen. "Please. Read the report."
"I don't have to," Xen sighed. "I can tell you exactly what's in there. Commander Shepard and his crew were saved by a platform they named Legion, resulting in the development of an emotional attachment to it as humans seem prone to. You have all given great significance to this act and see it as evidence of development of identity, emotion, and even morals. A stirring anecdote to be sure, but it lacks one very important detail."
"The code that Legion was running at the time of the incident. Now if that could be analyzed, we could determine without a doubt the source of the instructions Legion processed, and what motivation, if any, there was behind its actions. But until proven otherwise, the geth are merely machines without masters. Tell me, have you, or any of your scientists been able to examine their code first hand?"
"No," Castillo shook his head. "Understandably, the geth have been reluctant to share that information with organics."
"I see," Xen nodded, unsurprised. "Because that's what would take to satisfy me, or any other rational quarian for that matter. It should be the standard by which we all judge. Because without facts, your report is little more than wishful thinking." She halted along with her escort in front of a giant door which dominated the corridor wall. "Ah, this is your bay. Ambassador, it has been a pleasure." She extended her right hand, human style.
Castillo once again held out the folio. "I implore you, Admiral Xen. It's not wishful thinking. It's something far more valuable: hope. I promise you, there is a better future for the quarians within these pages."
Xen put her hands on her hips and stared at the proffered documents.
"Please," Castillo raised the folio slightly, his eyes sparkling in the corridor's bright light. "Don't make an old man beg."
Xen reached out and took the binder between her two fingers, a resigned smile on her face. "Only because it appeals to my intellectual curiosity. Nothing more."
"Wonderful!" Castillo clapped his hands. "I look forward to your analysis. It has been an absolute pleasure, madam Admiral. You have all of my contact information, and if you have any questions at all please do not hesitate to call me or my office at Arcturus."
"I will, Mister Castillo," Xen said. "And for what it's worth, I do appreciate the efforts by you and your people to help. We're unaccustomed to such kindness from outside our species."
Castillo found his eyes growing misty and took her hand in both of his and shook it lightly. "You are no longer alone in this galaxy. Remember that."
"I will," Xen smiled and stepped aside as the inner safety door opened, revealing two dozen quarians in the airlock waiting to exit. "Goodbye, Ambassador."
The three humans, followed by Aggeth'Foya and Har'Dannis, entered the lock. When the inner door sealed, Xen waved her entourage further down the corridor to where her runabout was waiting. She examined the cover of the Ambassador's folio as she walked, then handed it to her attache. "Dispose of this, would you? And inform the Moreh that we are on our way."
Docking Bay Nineteen of the Rayya swarmed with as many quarians inside as it did with the connecting corridor beyond. Eschewing power-hungry barriers, the hangar doors stood open to the vacuum of space allowing for rapid docking and departure of visiting ships, a necessity in a fleet as large as the Flotilla. It was the one convenience the crew of a quarian ship could enjoy as everyone aboard wore a space suit in perpetuity.
"Well that was interesting," Firaz said as they walked along the flight deck. At least a dozen shuttles of varying makes and sizes were either taking off or landing in the cavernous bay. "She actually seemed friendly."
Castillo nodded behind his mask as they approached the Xantus, a box-shaped transport with two large engine pods extending from the aft end. "In spite of today's setbacks, I believe they still have a real chance if they can just sit down and talk. Hopefully, this will not be our last visit."
"Speak for yourself, Mister Castillo," Dahlberg double checked his equipment pouches. "I'm waving goodbye and never looking back."
As per procedure, a quarian technical team waited for them at the base of the shuttle's entrance ramp. Without prompting, the three humans emptied their pouches and equipment bags onto a rolling table in front of the techs. The techs proceeded to scan each item, and the owners, with their omnitools. "All of your equipment will be returned to you at the end of your voyage," a young-sounding tech in a bright green suit said. "And your recorded data transmitted to your vessel after review and approval by Information Security."
"We know the drill," Dahlberg said. "Let's get this show on the road."
"Patience," Castillo advised. "Let them to their jobs."
Dahlberg rolled his eyes and looked over their transport while he waited for his equipment to pass inspection. They had been flying back and forth to the Shenyang all week in the rust bucket, and he was looking forward to bidding it farewell. He couldn't even tell what its original color had been as the hull was covered with decades of patches and repairs, all jumbled together like a life-sized collage of a space ship. He squinted and for the first time noticed a side panel displaying half of the logo of Trans-Alliance Spaceways peeking from under a layer of primer. "We could probably do a whole segment on the history of just one of these ships."
Castillo nodded approvingly. "That's an excellent idea. Do you think your network would be interested?"
"Nah, this story's dead. We got bigger fish to fry. Did some research on our taxi, though. Turns out this ship is even older than you."
"Is that right?" Castillo asked. He couldn't tell if the reporter was being sarcastic or not. "They're a resourceful people, the quarians. They take machines written off as derelict by other species and make them live again."
"Yeah," Dahlberg watched a similar-sized transport glide silently out from the bay into open space. "You can afford to do that when you don't have standards."
"Necessity probably demands that they adjust their standards." Castillo shook his head. The reporter and his assistant were usually tactful enough to keep their opinions to themselves in front of the quarians. Fortunately, none of those standing nearby were paying attention.
"All right," Sergeant Foya said and stepped up into the shuttle's rear cargo door and waved the humans up. "We're cleared. Mister Ambassador?"
"Thank you, Sergeant," Castillo said and boarded the shuttle. Dahlberg and Firaz followed, with Corporal Har'Dannis bringing up the rear and sealing the hatch behind them. The three humans worked their way to the front of the ship's windowless cargo compartment. At five meters wide by ten long, it would have been large enough to hold a hundred passengers if not for the dozen metallic cargo pods latched into both the deck and ceiling. As fuel and pilots were an important commodity in the fleet, a ship would never just be used to transport only three people. Every ship which docked with the Rayya, regardless of its other duties, was a food transport first.
"Good day, sirs," Passa'Denth vas Xantus's voice sounded tinny over the passengers' helmet radios. Unlike their marine escort, the shuttle's quarian pilot had been curious and friendly during the entire time he'd ferried the Ambassador back and forth to the Shenyang. During each flight he pumped the humans with endless questions about their homeworld and the Citadel after departure, and was delighted when the reporters asked him about life in the fleet. "We're waiting for clearance, so if you would, just sit back and relax and we'll be underway shortly. Internal hull pressure will be restored at that time. Estimated flight time to the Shenyang is thirty-one minutes.
Castillo took his seat in the front row, with Firaz close behind. Dahlberg stopped in the aisle and patted the back of the seat at the end of the row with a sigh. "Gonna miss this old beast," he said.
Foya stood with her arms crossed behind the passenger seats. The human knew she couldn't sit until he did, and seemed to take great pleasure in seeing how long he could go before she forced the issue. Her half-lidded eyes burned behind her face mask. "Take your seat, sir."
"Look, Foya," Dahlberg looked at his seated counterparts, then across the compartment where Corporal Dannis had posted himself. He waved her toward the back of the shuttle. "Could I talk to you for a minute?"
"Sit," Foya said and pointed to the row of chairs, but Dahlberg kept going.
Castillo turned his head about, but couldn't quite see what was going on because of his helmet. "Eric, please. We're almost home..."
"We got off on the wrong foot," Dahlberg said as he walked past the first cargo module on the left. "I just wanted to apologize for how I acted during our stay."
Foya strode purposefully behind the retreating human. In spite of what he was saying, his actions showed nothing but contempt for his hosts, and she'd had enough of it. "I will knock you out and carry you if I have to-" She grabbed him on the shoulder and spun him around to face her.
Dahlberg wrenched his arm up and snaked around Foya's, locking her body to his. Pushing from bent legs he rammed the palm of his free hand into her jaw, driving her head sideways with a dull snap. Protected by her suit and helmet, her neck did not break, but her vision went black and she felt her entire body go numb. Flipping Foya's body around, he snatched the Tempest sub-machine gun mounted on her suit's right hardpoint, jammed it into the base of her spine and pulled the trigger. Dark red spray coated her facemask from the inside and she fell to the floor.
"Dude, what the fuck!" Firaz yelled, now on his feet, his face pale with shock. Castillo wore a similarly horrified expression.
"Security Alert! Xantus!" Corporal Dannis unslung his own Tempest and rushed toward where Foya's body fell from behind the cargo module. "Get down!" he called out to the Ambassador, then poked his weapon around the edge of the cargo module. The space between the hull and cargo pods was empty all the way to the back of the compartment. Red lights flashed throughout the shuttle, and their comm units buzzed with alarms.
"NO!" Castillo shouted as Dahlberg charged around the other side of the cargo pod and fired a long burst into the marine's right side. The force of the impacts knocked the young quarian back against the wall. Dahlberg charged toward him, pushing the Corporal's weapon aside and sticking the muzzle of his gun into the weakest spot in the kid's armor, in the collar beneath the helmet. Dannis's body jerked once and fell to the deck on top of his NCO.
"Oh my god," Firaz kept repeating.
Castillo fell against his chair. "What have you done!"
Dahlberg dropped the overheated weapon from his hand and leaned down to pick up the Corporal's unfired one. Wordlessly he turned on Castillo and put a burst center-mass into his chest.
Firaz backed into the forward wall, then crouched in the corner, his hands in the air. "Come on, man," he pleaded. "Come on! Just tell me what's happening!" He never finished his sentence as Dahlberg fired once more, and the camera tech fell to the floor, dead.
"What's going on back there?" The pilot's voice echoed over the intercom. "Foya! Dannis!
"Foya's gone crazy!" Dahlberg's voice quivered with panic as he stepped back to make sure the two quarians were dead, or at least incapacitated. "She shot the Ambassador and Firaz! Dannis is down, too! Call for help! Call for help right now!" Satisfied, he slipped back between the hull and the last cargo pod and quickly removed a maintenance panel, just like he'd done on the way to the Rayya three days before. Security on the shuttle in flight was usually very lax, and after getting friendly with Passa he was allowed to look around as he liked, under the guise of doing research on the quarian's ship. Ego, Dahlberg learned long ago, was a failing not limited to humanity.
But the truth was, Dahlberg already knew everything there was to know about the Xantas. Even though the ship was over 150 years old, Cerberus was able to track down the original manufacturer. The company was long out of business, but thanks to a maze of intermediaries and lots of detective work, they were able to find the source code for the software used to put the drive of the ship into diagnostic mode. With it, direct command of the engines and FTL system was possible. By law, ships were designed to block this mode outside of specialized docks, to prevent the ship from being used as a faster-than-light kamikaze weapon. But if the correct inputs could be spoofed, and the right codes entered, Dahlberg could get the ship's engines to do whatever he wanted.
Get something nice for your father, the code phrase echoed in his head. The Illusive Man had signaled for the most devastating result possible to cripple the fleet. Dahlberg encoded the device to propel the shuttle forward through the Rayya's command module and set the timer for two minutes. With luck, he'd be able to get off the shuttle and aft of the planned trajectory, and his suit should keep him alive long enough to be rescued. Of course he would have to disappear afterwards, because there were going to be lots of questions asked, but he knew Cerberus would take care of him. As he activated the override device he'd planted earlier that week, he did feel a twinge of regret. He really did look forward to covering the action at Sahrabarik...
He dropped the Tempest at his feet and ran forward to where the Ambassador lay. He bent over and lifted the old man's body over his shoulders. Castillo's suit had self-sealed, but enough blood had already escaped and smeared the front of his envirosuit. That will add nicely to the effect, he thought. By the time he reached the shuttle's aft door, his eyes were flooded with tears, his breathing choppy and panicked. If only you could have gotten the camera drone in the air to catch your exit, what a coup that would have been... The timer in his helmet showed only a minute to go.
"Passa!" Dahlberg called out as he stood by the aft hatch. "It's Eric! Open the aft door! I've got to get help for the Ambassador!"
"Negative!" Passa replied. "Stay where you are, find some cover! Our marines are preparing to preparing to breach the ship! Where's Foya? Can you see her! Listen to me, she's overridden the engine controls! We need to stop her!"
Fifty seconds. Would the marines let him pass, allowing him to rush the mortally wounded ambassador to safety? Or would they open fire as soon as the hatch opened? He could always pause the countdown, or program in more time, but what if Passa was able to figure out where the override was coming from? He or the marines might figure a way to stop it. He dropped Castillo to the floor and walked to the exposed panel. There was only one thing he could do to make sure he didn't fail.
He reached in and picked up the diagnostic emulator. Warning lights flared all around the aft hatch as it began to slide open. The marines were coming in. On the deck in front of the opening door, Ambassador Castillo rolled on his side to face him. The old bastard was still alive.
"Eric," Castillo croaked, blood dribbling from his lips, his voice weak. "Whatever you are doing... please... stop. Stop, Eric."
Dahlberg sighed and looked as the display counted down. Forty seconds to go. He closed his eyes and envisioned the blue globe of the Earth hanging peacefully in the blackness of space. "If it's any comfort," he told Castillo as he dialed the time down to zero, "You're dying a hero."
Unlike the vast majority of the Migrant Fleet, the Irector had but one purpose: monitor the liveship Rayya. Wherever she went, the Irector and two dozen other picket ships followed at various distances, constantly watching the Rayya and the space around her. It was a no-fly zone as secure as any in the galaxy, with an elaborate series of coded challenges and procedures that could result in an encroaching vessel's destruction without warning.
In spite of the well-established rules, ships still wandered too close from time to time. With over 50,000 ships in the fleet, accidents happened. Navigational issues, collision avoidance, and runaways all contributed to wayward vessels ending up where they shouldn't be, then coming face-to-face with some of the deadliest ships in the quarian navy. Fortunately, in the time Captain Jaffrol'Salla vas Irector had been in command, they had only had to fire on a vessel once, and it turned out to be in legitimate defense. A group of Terminus pirates decided to make a run on the Rayya. The liveship remained unharmed and the fleet gained three more ships that day.
But now, something strange was happening on the ship they protected. "Any update on the security alert?" Salla asked from his command chair on the looked out the starboard viewport where Rayya's sphere filled half the sky.
"Yes sir," his comm officer said. "Reports of shots fired in the hangar deck. Multiple casualties. Apparently the human ambassador is amongst them."
"Oh gods," Salla slumped in his chair. "What idiot did that? I said from the start these negotiations would bring trouble. It was only a matter of time before-" A bright blue flash from his right made him instinctively cover his eyes, but he still turned to look for the source of the light. The Rayya still hung in space, its biosphere tumbling along as always. Except now, a dark, jagged hole appeared a quarter of the way up the side, just outside the circular ring which marked the axis of rotation. Hull panels and debris spewed from the hole like glitter.
"Monitoring explosion," his own sensor operator said in a controlled tone. "Port side, inner ring. Extreme venting and temperature variations in that sector."
"Secondary explosions along the primary hull," another voice reported from one of the other picket vessels. "We are no longer receiving telemetry and have lost all communication feeds. Irector, are you receiving anything at all from Rayya?"
Salla turned back to the window as more confused, panicked calls flooded the comm network. Rayya's primary hull contained the command module, hangar decks and engineering section. How could they have been damaged by an explosion in the biosphere? As he watched, the plating surrounding the hole bulged out like a boil and a geyser of while-hot fire spewed forth, sending a plume of fire and debris into space. Against the massive scale of the ship, it seemed to spread in slow motion until it grew almost as long as the Rayya herself.
How many people did Salla just see die? He could barely think, but he had to. He was put in command of Irector precisely because he could think under pressure, and his fleet, his people were counting on him. His first duty was the most important, and was the only situation where a single Captain had the authority to broadcast to all fifty thousand ships on his own initiative.
Priority One - Fleetwide Alert - Immediate recall of all ships to the Flotilla...
"We are getting the first video feeds of the event," Eva said.
The Illusive Man turned away from the starscape outside the window and back to the lone chair in his private chamber. "Pull it up for me, please." He took a sip from his glass and sat with one ankle resting on the opposite knee. A holo window opened in front of him, revealing a black rectangle with a white crescent moon in the lower right corner.
"This is amateur video taken from the quarian tug Bibo, posted on the extranet eleven minutes ago."
The white crescent in the corner sprouted a fuzzy tail, and the frame jerked and zoomed in, showing the Rayya in profile. Flames shot from its fractured bow like a blowtorch. "Oh my gods," a quarian man could be heard to say. "Oh my gods... No... No! Keelah! We've got to get in there... Konra'Ren, drop the load. I'll call TC and get us a vector!" A second, larger fireball erupted from the puncture in the Rayya's sphere and the feed came to an abrupt end.
"Record all feeds as they become available." The Illusive Man leaned back in his chair. "It would appear that Mister Dahlberg was successful in his mission. Has he attempted to make contact?"
"No sir, he has not."
"Keep me informed. He has performed a tremendous service in the name of his species. He is to be commended, if he survived."
The Illusive Man drained his glass, then fished in his vest for his cigarette case. "Any word from the Shenyang?"
"They have reported to Alliance Command that the Rayya has met with disaster, but have been unable to ascertain the status or location of Ambassador Castillo and his party. Their offer to render assistance has not received a reply, indicating that the Admiralty Board or command staff is unable to provide direction during this crisis. Remote analysis of sensor data from the Rayya indicates it has sustained catastrophic damage to both its primary and secondary hull, and that the biosphere is in danger of- excuse me, sir, but there is an incoming call from Doctor Archer on the Xenophon."
"Put him through," The Illusive Man said.
"Well I suppose congratulations are in order," Archer said, sounding reluctantly impressed. "I don't know what miracle you were able to conjure, but the quarians have abandoned their facility at Ma-at. They left so fast we initially assumed they were discovered by the geth."
"As I anticipated," The Illusive Man flicked his lighter and puffed on his cigarette. "I think we will also find the quarian fleet will not be leaving Raheel-Leyya any time soon. All they needed was a compelling enough reason to stay."
"I'm almost afraid to ask. The sterilization team is moving in to see what they left behind. It should be in our hands in a matter of minutes."
"Excellent. Let me know what you find."
"Archer out."The Illusive Man held his cigarette upright by its filter and studied the glowing embers, which pulsed and flared like the surface of the star behind him. Only one piece of the puzzle remained unaccounted for, but it might be the most be the most dangerous to acquire. He settled once more into his chair. "Eva... Let me know when we hear from the Normandy."