Atop the Grand Quorum, the cool night air provided a comfortable, breezy atmosphere for the hundreds of asari who gathered on its rooftop grotto to discuss the issues of the day under glittering stars and the dazzling nighttime skyline of Fiatela. Wine from the Quorum's own vineyard and fermented in casks in the chambers beneath the ancient building flowed freely to the patrons from decanters as old as the Quorum itself. Though there were no chairs, tall meter-wide tables dotted the floor, providing convenient surfaces on which to support goblets and plates while conversing. It was the perfect way to relax the mind and soul after a long day of civilized discourse, or to continue to try and resolve the day's quandaries in a more relaxed setting.
Matriarch Naranna sipped her Nevos Red wine as she wandered across the rooftop, enjoying the warm summer air and the voices of her friends and companions as they discussed the day's debates. Of course, what she was really listening for was any mention of the geth intrusion into their most secure networks. The network outage was the talk of the evening though the official version of the story had been readily accepted if conversation was any indication.
"They had security forces roaming the halls," said a representative from Ulee with a laugh. "I had my credentials checked three times."
A matron from Armali nodded sagely, "An understandable precaution. The entire network was down for almost half the day. Security had to be enforced. I think under the circumstances, the staff handled the incident as effectively as could be expected. We're lucky it was only a faulty network component sending out spurious data. Imagine if it had actually been a cyber-attack on the Quorum!"
"It's just incredible to think a single component could wreak such havoc throughout the entire building! If you ask me, it's just another example of how we've all become too dependent on technology..."
Naranna continued to weave her way through the tables, smiling and chatting briefly with anyone who turned to face her. The mood was festive and relaxed, as if a day without the machines somehow proved the asari were capable of getting by without them. She wondered how civil they would be, however, if the network had been down for more than the afternoon...
As she rounded a serving pavilion, she caught a sparkle of red near the battlements that lined the outside of the Quorum's top level. Built tens of thousands of years before, they represented a time when asari did not always settle things through diplomacy, but now only served testament to the structure's march through time along with the people who created it. Standing next to the outer wall, a trio of women spoke, a tray of sliced meat, cheeses, and vegetables perched on the ledge created in the space between two giant blocks of granite. Collona, still in the same red and white robes she had on earlier that day, stood with her back to Naranna. The other two women faced toward her, their expressions filled with dire concern.
"Naranna," the taller of the three asari spoke. It was Matriarch Torama from Attenna, along with Matriarch Yel of Kendra. Naranna stepped forward and embraced each of them warmly as Collona watched with barely contained disgust.
"A beautiful evening," Naranna said. "Sometimes I think we should hold the debates right here, under the stars, on a night like this."
"Nonsense," Torama raised her glass. "The nights are for meant reflection. If Athame had intended it any other way, she would not have invented wine."
Everyone laughed, except Collona, and raised their glasses before taking a sip. "I'm sorry if I interrupted," Naranna said. "But as far as reflection goes, all of you appeared to be preoccupied with something quite severe as I approached."
"Oh," Though Toroma's face had returned to a relaxed smile, she pointed to her still-dour counterpart. "Collona here was just informing us of a terrible accident at the quarian Migrant Fleet."
"Really? I hadn't heard."
"Yes, one of their food production vessels, a 'liveship' I believe Collona called it suffered a rather large explosion."
"That's not the worst part," Yel said, her face now contorted with genuine concern and sorrow. "The visiting dignitary from the Systems Alliance was apparently on board when it happened."
That particular news caught Naranna off guard enough that she set down her glass on a nearby table. "The gentleman conducting the negotiations?"
"I believe so."
"An accident, you say?"
For the first time since Naranna's arrival, Collona spoke, her eyes narrowed. "That's yet to be determined, isn't it?"
Naranna stared back at the red-clad matriarch, stunned at the hatred she saw reflected back at her. Her jaw dropped at the realization of just what Collona was implying. In spite of the breeze, Naranna felt her skin flush with heat in the dim light of the skyline.
"That's a very good point, Collona," Toroma shook her head. "It's too early to tell. I'm sure there will be an investigation by the Alliance. One always hopes these incidents are accidental, but with all of the bad blood surrounding the quarians and the geth..."
"Not to mention the way the negotiations were conducted," Yel interjected with disgust.
Toroma rolled her eyes. "Oh, yes. What in the goddess' name were the humans thinking, conducting peace negotiations in secret? What led them to believe they had the requisite expertise to navigate such treacherous waters? They hadn't even discovered space flight when the Geth Uprising occurred. There's so much they don't yet understand."
"It was a disaster from the start," Yel said and reached to the battlement to pick up a slice of spice gourd from the tray. She dipped it delicately in dressing, not wanting to overwhelm its fresh, succulent flavor. "If they'd only gone to the Citadel with this, maybe their ambassador would still be alive. Human pride, I tell you. They feel like they must always go it alone. At any rate, they didn't send soldiers for once and I guess they should be commended for that."
"True," Toroma nodded. "And a dignitary fell trying to bring about peaceful change. That, too, should be recognized, in spite of the clumsy way they went about it. We should send our condolences to the human consulate in the morning."
"An excellent idea, Toroma! And perhaps a few words during the Morning Benedictions."
Throughout the exchange, Collona's gaze never left Naranna. "I hadn't heard anything about this," Naranna said.
The wine in Collona's goblet rippled in her shaking hand. "Sometimes to find the truth about the quarians you have to dig for it, don't you?"
If Toroma noticed the acid behind Collona's words, she didn't comment on it. "Well, that's understandable, their entire population combined doesn't add up to our smallest republic. What are there, twenty million of them now?"
"Fifteen, I think," Yel interjected. "Maybe a little more."
"Well, I'm afraid for species with populations measured in billions," Toroma used a set of tongs to lift several slices of meat and cheese into a napkin in her hand. "Their problems may not elicit a very strong response... Unless they happen to be occupying a populated system. Where are they, anyway?"
"Raheel-Leyya, I believe."
"Oh, well that's not going to bode well for the quarians, then is it. A Terminus system with no planetary bodies? Nothing for anyone to claim once they get there? They may be as good as extinct, I'm afraid."
Collona finally broke her lock on Naranna, now looking at Torona with abject horror. "How can you say that so... casually? These are people, Torona!"
"I'm not trying to be cruel," Torona said. "But I'm a realist. As tragic as their situation may be, the quarians simply do not matter to the galaxy at large. History has proven that, time and again. Unless the quarians can find someone to sponsor them, like the hanar did with the drell, their situation may be hopeless."
"Perhaps it should be the humans," Yel suggested. "After all, this is their mess to clean up."
"Oh, let's hope not. Having the hanar nurture an endangered species back to health is one thing... But the humans? What kind of example would they set? Maybe the hanar wouldn't mind taking them in. They're a very enlightened species."
Yel laughed. "Did I ever tell you about my friend Cyadni T'Pinn during her years on Kahje?"
Toroma slapped Yel's wrist lightly. "This one never tires of hearing tales of Cyadni and the hanar! Do share them with our friends!"
Collona set her glass on the battlement and turned away, walking on shaking legs towards the bank of elevators at the north end of the wall.
"Excuse me," Naranna said and hurriedly walked after her. She kept her pace slow and deliberate so as not to attract attention, but Collona pushed her way through the crowd, spilling drinks and knocking matrons and matriarchs alike into the tables and each other as she passed. By the time she reached the elevator, half of the eyes on the rooftop pavilion were on her.
Naranna stopped and made for the outer wall. The lights of Fiatela still glimmered on the horizon, with streams of blinking lights moving to and fro to the celestial lights in the heavens above. Collona barely kept her composure after the geth incursion on the Quorum earlier that day, but what would she do now? The sensitive, emotional woman had always kept her eyes on the quarians since their expulsion, swaying votes for aid when she could, campaigning for representation for the quarian people at home and on the Citadel. But her pleas always fell on deaf ears, and to most she was nothing more than a soft-hearted curiosity. Some in the Quorum had bestowed upon her the title "Goddess of Lost Causes" because she seemed willing to wait until eternity before she'd give up.
But now... The human ambassador in the Flotilla had been killed, and one of the quarian liveships damaged in an explosion. While she couldn't say that she'd mind if the quarians as a people took their fleet and disappeared into the depths of space, the idea of seventeen million people slowly starving in space was enough to give her pause. That worried her even more, because if she felt anything like sympathy towards the quarians at this point, she could only imagine what Collona was feeling. And if there was anything Naranna had learned throughout centuries of dealing with people of any species, guilt, not rage or even love, was the most dangerous emotion in the galaxy.
She leaned against the battlements and activated her omnitool. It's brightness adjusted to a low level in the dim light, but Naranna dropped it to it's lowest setting where it was barely readable. She opened a text window to Donia Toma, her Chief of Security. Where are you right now? Locate Matriarch Collona immediately.
When Garrus passed through the Normandy's lab, he planned to do a rapid about-face if the door to the briefing room was closed and locked. Even if it were closed with its holo panel glowing green, he didn't want to intrude. Tali had run from the CIC without so much as saying a word, and then Shepard disappeared after her. Though he wanted to be there for her as a friend, Garrus knew no one could comfort Tali better than her captain.
Instead, the hatch to the briefing room was open, Tali was speaking, but not to Shepard. He crept quietly up to the opening and listened.
"Captain Wylo has a point," Tali said. "But I think we need to plan for the worst. The processed food in the storage tanks on the outer ring will keep, as will the congealing tanks underneath... But if we don't act fast, we'll lose the fermentation layers. If we can keep them heated and get them transferred to the other two liveships, they will still be viable and can be slipstreamed into the processing chain."
Garrus poked his head around the corner. Shepard leaned against the hatch frame opposite and waved him in. He stood next to the Commander and kept his voice low. "How bad is it?"
Shepard nodded toward the projection, his expression grave. Tali stood in front of a huge schematic of the Rayya, stenciled in light in the air before them. Bright white lines delineated the great sphere and its inner workings as well as the engineering and cargo sections towards the rear. A swath of red cut from the aft through the length of the ship, widening as it went. A similar band of color bisected the sphere almost down the middle, but was off angle by thirty or forty degrees from the secondary hull. It looked uncomfortably like med scan of a body with a gunshot wound that deflected after entry.
"This is insane," said an angry quarian voice. "You are talking about abandoning the single largest food supply in the fleet-" The lone voice was soon drowned out by a dozen other voices, all trying to be heard over the others.
"Listen..." Tali leaned over the comm panel as if the speaker on the other end could see the desperation in her eyes. "Listen to me, please! I- I'm talking about extending the food supply for another two days before... before we lose all of it. My father... the Admirals organized a study..."
Once again, the channel was overwhelmed by at least ten different speakers. Tali looked at her birthship before her, bleeding to death in the vacuum of space, then hung her head in despair. What could she do to make them listen? She sensed someone beside her and opened her eyes to see Shepard standing over her, his face a mixture of sadness and disbelief. Then his lips thinned, and he reached out and pushed a button. The room went silent as the comm feed to the Conclave dropped.
"What are you doing?" Tali gasped. Even Garrus let out a soft groan from behind them.
Shepard leaned back against the table with his arms crossed, still staring at the engineer. "Giving them a chance to realize the person with the answers left the call."
Shepard stood to face her, a deep scowl on his face. "This isn't a 'please' situation, Tali. The Rayya's entire engineering party has been killed. The bridge crew is dead, along with the captain and the entire Admiralty Board. You know more about that ship and its workings than any of them did, and they're cutting you out. Every minute they waste, a thousand more quarians go hungry, and you're the only one that can stop it."
"Incoming transmission from the Migrant Fleet," EDI said. Tali reached to the comm panel to answer, but Shepard pulled her hand away.
Garrus watched his two closest friends stand nose to nose, one having just hit the lowest point in her life while the person she trusted and admired most gave her a shove instead of offering a hand. More than anyone, Garrus could appreciate Shepard's tough love routine, having been in dire need several times in their journeys together. But Shepard always tailored it to the recipient, and seemed to know instinctively when to go for the hug instead of the slap. And right now, Tali did not need the slap.
Shepard still stared at her as the comm panel continued to ring. "Remember back outside the Giraf when I was getting ready to beat the shit out of Rilo? I was going to crack his helmet like an egg. And what a mess that would have created. But I didn't have to. You stepped up and took control of that situation. I've never seen you do that before. I was proud of you, Tali. You handled him. You handled me."
He took a step back from her and pointed at the console. "Handle them."
Tali'Zorah flashed back to the dock at Dashta, where she stepped between Consul Rilo and her Commander and prevented a fight that would have certainly lead to a disaster of a different sort from the one that befell them later. She had done it at Freedom's Progress when she stood between Prazza and a trio of Cerberus agents in the middle of a colony where thousands of humans had just vanished without a trace. But then, she had been unable to convince her marine escort then to take her advice, and they all paid the price because she hadn't been strong enough. She couldn't let that happen again. Not now. There was too much at stake.
Shepard watched her expectantly. She took a deep breath and imagined what Shepard would say in her place, remembered the look he always had on his face after exiting the comm room after talking to the Citadel on the SR-1. He always went in calm, but upon exiting he seemed ready to take on Sovereign single handedly. She reached out for the switch. "This is Tali'Zorah vas Normandy," she said calmly.
"Tali!" Captain Wylo was not calm. "What- we lost the connection!"
"No Captain, you didn't lose anything. I lost you, and it wasn't an accident."
"What?" Wylo's indignation was echoed by those who shared the channel.
"Captains, please," Tali said again, loudly and firmly, and then kept going when they did not stop. "Every minute we waste now, thousands of our people will starve later as what's left in the Rayya's tanks begins to rot. And I have been listening to you for twelve minutes going over the same reports. Let me break it down to language you can understand. The Rayya is finished as a source for food." She shared the schematic of the ship again and manipulated it with her hands to emphasize her words. She looked over at Shepard, who nodded in approval. More voices tried to break in, but she simply raised her own, with a tone of authority to match. "The center axis, the structure connecting the sphere to the flywheels is shattered from the impact. Unequal torque during braking caused extensive shearing throughout the entire sphere. Even if the flow systems and containment vessels could be patched, if we restart rotation with even minimal load, it will rip the entire sphere to shreds. And since the entire cultivation and transport process is dependent on centrifugal force to deliver biomass to the outer rings, there is no possible way for production to continue."
Tali's words must have reached the ears of the captains on the other end, because there was only silence. A female captain finally spoke. "Chief Zorah," the woman said, for the first time using her title. "How long would you estimate repairs to take on the sphere?"
"Without a direct inspection, I can't say for certain. But from the damage control reports you've sent... one hundred to one-hundred twenty cycles, depending on available resources." Tali bit her lower lip. "Our only option is to salvage what we can, to try and make it last as long as possible until the damage can be repaired or a replacement for the Rayya can be found."
"With careful rationing, most of us should survive. But we must act now, to save what we can."
"What about the biomass?"
Tali shook her head as the figures on the schematic continued to update. The biomass was the least of their problems. She tried to keep from projecting the future, but she couldn't help it. Starving and weak, the Flotilla would have to operate at minimal levels, becoming increasingly easy prey for anyone looking for a quick raid. "It's already beginning to die off. We might be able separate the materials if we had a large enough centrifuge but... by the time we could find one it will be too late. That's just another reason to direct our efforts to salvaging what we can before concentrating on repairs."
"What's the quickest way to do this?"
Keelah, Tali thought and stared at the ceiling to keep her tears from splashing down her mask. They're finally listening. She didn't let her voice betray the relief coursing through her. Shepard put a hand on her shoulder. She muted her output as she cleared her throat and was instantly back to business. "The procedures are all laid out in the briefing titled 'Liveship Survivability Emergency Response.' In it are detailed plans for utilizing all available ships to transport foodstuffs at various stages in processing to other vessels in the event of disaster. The required programs already reside on most ships in the Flotilla, but require activation..." Tali had to stop and take a breath, as the severity of the attack on the Flotilla's command structure sunk in. "...from proper command authority in the fleet, which now means all of you. Rayya's entire outer sphere is modular in design, allowing for relatively easy separation to allow access to the inner rings..."
Shepard walked back Garrus by the hatch. The turian looked at his friend with an odd smile as Tali continued to talk.
"You need me for something?" Shepard asked.
Garrus shrugged. "No. I- just wanted to see how she was doing. Nicely done."
"She's come a long way."
"Well, I did what I could." Garrus grinned when that got him a look. "You helped too. A little. Okay, a lot. That's why you're the Commander."
Shepard looked over the schematic of the Rayya once more and sighed. With all of the concern over the food situation, he didn't recall anything about casualties or rescue efforts. His first impulse was to jump back on the line, but it wasn't his place to do so. The quarians had their own priorities, and Tali was doing a fantastic job on her own. "Wanna switch?"
"Not just no, but hell no." Garrus shook his head. "What the hell is happening here, Shepard? The day after we get hit at Dashta, someone executes a decapitation strike on the Migrant Fleet, coincidentally where the geth were supposed to be. I don't like coincidence. Because it never is coincidence, is it? I think we need to talk to our guest again, in light of recent events. And anyone else who might be able to shed some light on this new mystery."
"I think you're right," Shepard said. "Hang on a second." Shepard walked to the table and leaned forward to make sure he got into Tali's restricted peripheral vision. He didn't want to interrupt her conversation, but he didn't want to leave if she still needed him. He pointed to himself and then to the door.
Tali nodded as the Captains from the Conclave continued their planning. Her eyes crinkled as she smiled tiredly behind her mask, conveying thanks that she hoped he could read. No matter how bad things got, he was the one constant she could depend on. What would you do with out him, she thought?
He smiled back. Message received. Sometimes they didn't even have to say a word. The feeling of warmth that always gave Tali was short lived, however, as he turned for the door, and she turned back to the greatest salvage operation ever undertaken by the Migrant Fleet.
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