Ordinarily, Tali jumped at any opportunity to visit Shepard in his loft on the top deck of the ship. How many times had she lulled herself asleep in her quarters, dreaming of what it would be like to spend the night there? Not that anything would happen if she did, of course... She always imagined that she and Shepard would spend a night just talking on the couch, reliving their adventures together, making each other laugh so hard that they'd be surprised when they saw what time it was. Shepard always liked to have a drink or two, and maybe he'd be too tired to move and just fall asleep next to her. And maybe she'd just wake up nestled next to him, his arm wrapped around her shoulders, her fingers intertwined with his...
But someone else always interrupted. It never failed. Even if Tali just suggested hanging out and talking, Miranda would show up needing to discuss requisitions. Or Mordin would come in babbling about some incredible breakthrough concerning the fungus in the ship's showers. Or Garrus, the metal-plated, skull-faced bosh'tet had the psychic ability to sense when Tali even thought about heading up to see Shepard by herself and he'd already be there, bottles open, playing some ridiculous card game with the Commander, Kasumi, Ken and anyone else who liked to gamble. One time, half the crew packed into Shepard's spacious quarters for an all-night bender minutes after Tali had brought some music for them to listen to alone. She took small satisfaction as each of her ship mates came by as she sat alone on the couch to ask for copies of her mix.
Now, for the first time, she had him to herself. But after everything that had happened, the betrayal at Dashta, the death of one of the squad... Whatever Shepard wanted to talk about wasn't likely to result in late night jocularity and cuddling on the couch.
The elevator door opened to the loft's vestibule and the hatch to Shepard's quarters stood ajar. She walked towards it and wrung her hands in front of her. The compartment was never brightly lit, but now was filled with the high-contrast glare from work lights on stands around the perimeter of the room. The soft blue glow from the aquariums was absent, replaced with dark, empty shadow. All of their plate glass panes were shattered, with only jagged shards in the frames. Crystals of glass sparkled on the deck all the way across the room. The translucent display case over the desk which held Shepard's model collection was similarly destroyed, displaying only sharp fragments where two dozen scale models had been the day before. Black scorch marks blotted the walls, floor, and ceiling. The only thing intact was Shepard's personal workstation on the desk, and she could tell from its unmarred surface that it had recently been replaced.
Beyond, solid hull plating replaced the beautiful panoramic roof over the Commander's bed, now reduced to charred rubble when the mercenary force blew its way through Normandy's hull in an attempt to take the ship. She heard the crunch of footsteps on glass from the lower half of the suite.
Shepard's head bobbed as he ascended the stairs. He wore the same rumpled black T-shirt and trousers and combat boots he'd been wearing since their return to the ship. He sighed when he reached the top step, holding a translucent blue plastic bag in one hand which stretched because of the bulky items held within. "Hey, Tali, thanks for coming up. Sorry for the mess. Just trying to grab what I can before we sweep this whole place out."
"Keelah," Tali's hand went to cover her respirator and she shuddered at the destruction. "I'm so sorry..."
"No, look," Shepard said and set the sack on the ground as he walked toward her. "This wasn't your fault."
"Yes it was," Tali blurted. "You didn't trust them from the start. We should have just called the Flotilla instead of going in person like you said. I talked you out of it. None of this would have happened if I'd listened to you."
Shepard stood in front of her and put his hands on her shoulders. "That's not what happened at all. Think back. The geth were determined to see it through. Blue was going to go meet the Giraf at Dashta with or without my consent, remember?"
Tali opened her eyes to see him staring straight at her. Her eyes flooded with tears. "I led us right to them."
"No, Xen did," Shepard said. "The Admirals have to answer for this. Not you."
Tali took a deep breath and shuddered as she exhaled, but nodded.
Shepard actually smiled. "Hey, look at this," he reached into the sack and pulled out the model of the quarian transport she had given him when she first came aboard as Tali'Zorah vas Normandy. He hefted the heavy metal reproduction in his hand. "It's the only one that made it. Built to last, huh?"
Tali knew that Shepard was trying to make her feel better, but standing in the middle of the utter destruction only seemed to make it worse. "I'm sorry-"
Shepard cocked his head. "What did I just tell you?" He put the model back in the sack and leaned against his desk. "I didn't bring you up here for that. It's all water under the bridge. What I want to know is what do we do about it? I mean, I know what I want to do, but I shouldn't. So I'm asking you, what are our options? How do we tell the fleet that the Admirals sabotaged the negotiations and tried to have us killed?"
What indeed? Tali looked at her captain, standing in the harsh light of the work lamps in his ruined cabin. Her ship and her crew barely escaped a trap set by the people they were trying to help... and one of her shipmates paid the price with her life. She could tell by the look on Shepard's face exactly what he wanted to do to balance the equation.
"It wasn't all of them," Tali rubbed her hands furiously. "They- It was only Xen and Gerrel, you know that. Please don't take it out on all of them. Most of us want want to end this war. We can't let what one or two people did stop us."
"It may not be up to us anymore." Shepard looked down at his comm station and gave a heavy sigh. "I've been in contact with Admiral Hackett. The Alliance has withdrawn their support of the negotiations."
"Wait, you didn't- you didn't tell them about Xen, did you...?"
"No. Not yet," Shepard said. "Like I said, I wanted to talk to you first. The order to abandon the peace talks came from Arcturus. The Conclave already voted to terminate, and after what happened to us at Dashta the geth cut off all communications with the quarians. There's no one left to mediate to, Tali. The human ambassador will be leaving the Migrant Fleet within the hour if he hasn't left already. The Alliance is officially out of the picture. I'm sorry."
Tali stared at the deck, fresh tears welling up in her eyes. How had everything gone so wrong? She thought back to before the Normandy made the jump through Omega Four. Shepard wanted Legion and her to return to the flotilla to show the quarian people that cooperation was possible with the geth, but they both refused, demanding to stay aboard their ship and face the collectors with their captain. Had they appeared before the Conclave then, would it have made a difference? Would Admiral Xen's scheme been thwarted, or would she have only achieved her goals days earlier, whatever they were?
Shepard turned back to her. For the first time that she could remember, his eyes were totally devoid of emotion. No hate, no rage, nothing. She always knew that when Shepard got quiet, that's when hell was going to follow. "So I'm asking you again. What do we do about this? I'm not interested in a body count. But someone has to answer for Jack."
Tali nodded. Shepard was right. As much as she tried to justify the actions of the Admiralty Board, there was no excuse. They led the Normandy into an ambush with the intent of killing her entire crew, while at the same time sabotaging the best chance they had for peace. Her constant hand-wringing stopped. "We need to go to the Conclave with this. Give them everything we've got about what happened. They can relieve the admirals involved for treason and-"
Shepard turned back toward his console, his hands working the holo display. "Who do we talk to?"
"Oh," Tali gulped. Shepard meant to call the Conclave immediately. "Um... The Anba. It's the ship where the Conclave convenes. It's essentially the civilian flagship of the Flotilla. We'll want the the Officers of the High Court. Uh..." On any normal day Tali could rattle off the names of dozens of captains, but now she could barely recall the name of the High Officer himself. She switched on her omnitool and punched clumsily at its virtual interface. "I, uh... I need to open a channel to the Migrant Fleet. Would that be okay? I'm still blocked."
Shepard could see Tali's fingers tremble as she worked her omni. The poor girl had been exiled from her people, seen her father killed, her shipmates die, and was now preparing to accuse at least two of the highest officers in the Migrant Fleet of treason. How much more would she have to endure before she caught a break? "Sure thing," he said and opened up the communication control screen on his display. "EDI, go ahead and open those channels."
"Right away, Commander," EDI said.
A soft, high-pitched tone filled the compartment. Thinking it might be latent hearing damage from the firefight, Shepard rubbed his ear and turned back to Tali to ask if she heard it too. The quarian stood transfixed, staring at the omnitool on her wrist which pulsed with bright red lines instead of its normal, warm gold color. Her glowing eyes flickered behind her facemask and she took an unbalanced step forward before collapsing toward the deck sending pieces of glass skittering across the floor. Shepard lunged toward her and caught her beneath her shoulders. He lowered her to a sitting position, and feeling dead weight in his arms lowered her gently to the deck on her back.
"Tali!" Shepard looked into her mask but it had fogged over from the inside. "EDI! Get a medical team up here right now!" He pulled Tali's left arm up, still enveloped by her hellish red omnitool. Could they have sent some kind of feedback through the network to do this to her? He unfastened the clasp which held the omnitool to her wrist and tossed it aside before instinctively reaching around Tali's neck to feel for a pulse. "Shit," he muttered as he realized the futility of doing so through her suit, and scrambled back to his desk to pick up his own omnitool so he could check her vital signs.
On the floor next to the unconscious quarian, her omnitool projected an image of the liveship Rayya with a plume of fire erupting from its bow as it continued to fill the compartment with its plaintive whistle.
Tali sat upright, nearly knocking her helmet into the head of Doctor Chakwas, who fell back on her haunches and nearly dropped her datapad in surprise. Not having ever linked into the nerve stim center of the quarian's suit before, Chakwas had no idea what to expect, but the effect was instantaneous.
Gasping for breath, her head heavy with dizziness, Tali scanned the room around her. Her skull felt like it was filled with the shards of glass beneath her on the floor. She was still in Shepard's quarters, sitting beneath the glare of the work lights. She squinted and her faceplate darkened instantly, which because of the intense contrast of the lamps only made her vision worse. She held her left wrist in front of her face. Even through her blurred eyes, she could see her omnitool was gone. She put a hand behind her and pushed herself to her feet.
"Tali," Chakwas said and tried to push her back, "stay down. You might fall-"
"Where is it?" Tali made herself stand, and the doctor rose next to her.
Tali caught a red glow from the Commander's station and staggered toward it. Her fainting, her dizzy spell... Had she been dreaming? The last time she felt this bad was the morning after coming back from a crew gathering at Eternity bar on Illium. She'd lost track of how many drinks she'd had and Garrus kept telling her "only two" any time she asked. She was sick for what seemed like days. But when she picked up her omnitool, she knew it was no dream. The device was programmed to go into an alert mode upon receiving a special signal, and it now indicated a fleet-wide disaster.
Tali tried to force herself to read slowly and thoroughly but she couldn't help but scroll through the message for the highlighted sections. "Rayya critically damaged by explosion. Bridge crew not responding. Admiralty Board not responding. Venting ship to contain fires." According to the time stamp, the event happened less than thirty minutes before, and she had only been out for three or four. She staggered past Chakwas toward the elevator. The doctor grabbed her as she passed, but instead of stopping her, Chakwas instead helped her to the lift. "Where do you need to be?"
"Where's Commander Shepard?"
"CIC. Monitoring the situation from there." From the look on her face, Chakwas knew the severity of the situation. "I'm sorry, Tali."
Tali leaned against the wall as the lift descended and scrolled through the constantly updating feed. "Disengaging primary flywheels due to load imbalance. Uneven torque registering throughout Centrifuge. Pressure in emulsion tanks critical. Uncontained fires: Central Processing, Central Storage, Central Distribution. Damage Control capability limited - 78% of personnel ship-wide out of contact. Major explosion reported, Rings 2-5. Hull integrity, frames 556-610, zero percent.."
The elevator door opened to CIC and Tali staggered out. Miranda and the asari Enlea stood at the Commander's station on the left at the center of a half dozen holo screens. Kelly was at her station on the right, with Garrus at her side. In the center, atop the stairs at the main view console, Shepard stood with his back to her, hands clenched on the rail. Instead of the swirling galactic map, he stood silhouetted against a giant projection of the Rayya in her death throes.
Your birthship, Tali thought. The greatest ship in the fleet. For as large as it was, the Rayya had relatively few crew, only twenty-six thousand. But those who had the name Rayya, by birth or by invitation, were held in special regard by the fleet at large. She always wanted to ask her father how she came to be born on the ship, but he would never say. Neither he or her mother had the Rayya in their lineage. Rael'Zorah wasn't even an admiral at the time, let alone a captain when she'd been conceived, so what kind of influence could he have? Growing up, though, she'd seen the way the old Admirals treated her father, and how much they valued his intellect. Throughout her life, there never seemed to be a shortage of volunteers to take in little Tali'Zorah nar Rayya when her father disappeared for months at a time "in service to the fleet." And how they chastised that same teen-aged girl for cursing her father for never being around when her family needed him.
The Rayya. The greatest ship of the fleet because it was the most important. The Migrant Fleet had three liveships, each of a different class and tonnage, each custom built by merging two or three separate ships together to function as one. But of the three, the Rayya was the largest, accounting for forty-two percent of the Migrant Fleet's food production and distribution alone. The aft section was a standard quarian super-freighter, common in service before the Uprising. But the front section, the sphere, was something special. It was not a ship at all but a space station designed for storing and separating compressed liquid fuels distilled from gas giants. Its constant rotation not only provided gravity, but provided the means to separate the fuel products through sustained centrifugal force. The quarian conglomerate which constructed it was all but wiped out on Rannoch during the war, and the surviving corporate officers relinquished control of the station to the Navy to provide liquid hydrogen and helium for the war effort. When the food supply for the hyper-allergic quarian species began to dwindle, it was clear an alternative was needed. So what used to be a fueling station became the greatest biosynthesis plant the galaxy had ever seen.
Valves and pipes were refitted to handle far thicker, viscous materials. Pumps were replaced, and filters and sterilization equipment crammed in wherever space could be found. But the greatest structures in the sphere were vast processing and storage tanks, ideal for long term storage of what would become the staple of every quarian's diet for the coming centuries. Protein paste, made from algae, fungus and cloned tissue, all cultured and grown at the center of the sphere, kept warm and given energy from recycled biomass collected from around the fleet, using composting techniques perfected by farmers from the old world. The chemical action in the compost, in fact, provided most of the sphere's power. Even if the ship's reactor's went offline, they could still process food even if the ship lost power, and the centrifugal force from the rotation kept the processed food flowing outward toward storage tanks and distribution points around the hull. It was incredibly productive, efficient, and most importantly low-maintenance and self-sustaining as long as nothing broke in the chain.
Now, a geyser of fire erupted from Rayya's hull, and the giant sphere had ceased rotation. Tali couldn't imagine how many people had been inside when the explosion occurred. It was mostly machinery in there, but several thousand technicians kept careful watch over the pumps and circulating systems, like individual cells patrolling a complex organism. But that wasn't her major concern. The time it took for raw biomass to move from the center of the sphere to the culture tanks to the holding ring was five days... which meant that if food production couldn't be restored, almost half of the Migrant Fleet would begin starving in less than a week.
Tali felt her legs weaken, but Doctor Chakwas held her steady, a worried look on her face. Tali stared at Shepard's back as he listened to incoming transmissions about the disaster. Her heart skipped a beat. With Shepard in charge, everything was going to be okay. With his connections, the Alliance fleet, outnumbered in size and strength only by the turian fleet and the Flotilla itself, was probably mobilizing and streaking towards Raheel-Layya to render assistance.
"We're surrounded, Admiral," said a human male over the comm, a voice Tali could not recognize. "They say if we so much as raise screens or spool up our drive they'll open fire."
Admiral Hackett's unmistakable voice responded. "They're blocking our security force at the relay as well. They just took a shot right in the gut, Cramb, so we'll give them some leeway. Take no provocative action. Right now, you're the only eyes we've got in the Flotilla. Have you heard from Ambassador Castillo or his party?"
"No sir. The Ambassador's ship is overdue. We have received no communications since the incident aboard the Rayya..."
"All right, your first priority is recovering the Ambassador. Don't challenge your escort, but do everything you can to scan from a distance and monitor all transmissions..."
Tali's stomach burned. The quarian people were facing extinction, and they were concerned about one person. And all Shepard was doing was listening. It was as Admiral Daro'Xen always said: the quarians could not depend on anyone else to save them. She turned left toward the armory, her legs finding renewed strength as the human's words faded behind her. She found the conference room deserted when she walked through its hatch. She glanced at her omnitool and saw the fleet feed was still updating. "EDI, do I still have comm clearance to the Migrant Fleet?"
After being exiled, all of Tali's access to the Flotilla's network had been summarily terminated. However, thanks to the peace negotiations, she had been granted special clearance through the Conclave's Office of Diplomatic Affairs, sanctioned by the Admiralty Board itself. She hoped it would be enough. She activated the conference room's comm panel and patched in. She was free to transmit, but she had no idea who would be receiving on the other end.
"This is Tali'Zorah nar Rayya vas Normandy, calling the High Officers of the Conclave, responding to Fleet Emergency traffic and requesting damage control reports on the Rayya. Please respond..."
She paused and waited for the reply. Names and faces of her ship-family and friends aboard the Rayya flashed through her mind, the men and women who raised her when her father wasn't around and took care of her mother when other, more important, Fleet business took precedence. Clan Voya, who raised their children from the time they could walk to patrol the pipes and conduits that ran through the sphere. Chief Engineer Juia'Yorran who let the daughter of Rael'Zorah into her engineering compartments at the age of six and taught her to love a ship like it was a living thing. Captain Kar'Danna, who along with Han'Gerrel convinced her father to allow Tali to go on a pilgrimage far more distant and dangerous than an Admiral of the Board should allow. All of them shaped her life in ways she could not have ever imagined, allowing her to see and experience things most quarians only saw in vids. Who amongst them were still alive?
Tali inhaled, ready to try again when she felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned around to see Shepard right behind her. She didn't even notice that he'd followed her. He moved next to her at the table, hand still on her shoulder. All she could do was blink at him.His voice was measured and calm. "What do you need from me?"