Beyond the windows of the Normandy's cockpit, Joker watched the hulls of hundreds, no thousands of ships of every shape and tonnage drift by as the human ship followed its escort through quarian Migrant Fleet. Even though EDI was actually flying, Joker kept his eyes on the frigate sized vessel in front of him and tried not to think about the cruiser following behind, but that was better than the alternative.
The view outside was too similar to the debris field around the Collector Base at the center of the galaxy for his comfort. Though they passed ships instead of derelicts, nothing good could ever come from flying in space as crowded as this. But it wasn't all bad. Shepard decided not to make contact with any of the relief fleet sent to Raheel-Leyya by the Illusive Man. A double-cross seemed far fetched to Joker, but since it was based on Miranda's advice he knew better than to argue. So they passed by without so much as even a wave. Now the Normandy was safe in the middle of a quarian task force that could blow a dreadnought to smithereens. But he had to wonder exactly who the quarians would really try and protect.
"The quarian shuttle is on approach," EDI said from next to Joker.
"Right on schedule," Joker sat up in his seat and craned his neck and caught a bright white dot moving across a panorama of ships illuminated by the local star. He could have easily checked his scanner, but there was no substitute for visual contact. "I wonder what it's going to be this time?"
"What do you mean, Jeff?"
"Well let's see. First it was the turians coming to arrest us. No, wait. First it was a geth shuttle, then the turians coming to arrest us. After that, it was an asari spy coming to deliver our execution order from Thessia. No, wait, I'm forgetting about the boarding shuttles that tried to breach us at Dashta, that happened in between. Should we get ready to laze and blaze, or roll out the red carpet? I can't keep track anymore."
"The geth and Enlea T'Vari came to help us."
"Right. So we're batting five-hundred when it comes to visitors coming aboard trying to help us rather than hurt us. I'm just wondering which way this one will go. Contact in five minutes. Better let Shepard know."
"I will notify the Commander," EDI said.
Joker shook his head as the dot in front of the ship grew larger. "Disasters to your doorstep. Delivery within thirty minutes, or the next one's free..."
It was a fact for most sentient species that one could not force sleep. When Matriarch Naranna rolled over on her side in her comfortable four-post bed, she was relieved to see she wouldn't have to fight it much longer. Dull gray light filtered in through the window, heralding Parnitha's rise over Thessia in the coming minutes. She settled into the bed's over-sized pillows and closed her eyes.
The end of the quarian negotiations with the geth bought her some time, but it was only a stay of execution. Sooner or later, a forgotten ruin of an office building on Rannoch would give up its secrets. Orbital imagery during and after the Uprising indicated it was still intact. The geth, uninterested in occupation, left most structures untouched after the quarians fled their homeworld. It might be weeks, it might be another three centuries, but someone or something would eventually find it.
Throughout the night she pondered the options. There were really only two: a raid by the Commandos would provide information and provide some indication if the asari research material had been discovered since the planet was abandoned. But it would be risky. So risky that it would best be approached as a suicide mission, one that the soldiers chosen might not even know its true purpose. That way, if caught, the geth could not discover their intentions. But someone going along would have to know. Otherwise, how would they know what to look for? If the asari were captured seeking a specific location, the geth would want to know what made that location so special.
Besides sending some of Thessia's finest warriors to their deaths, the risk of exposure was too great. Recovery of the research materials didn't matter, only preventing discovery by anyone else. An orbital strike, nuclear, antimatter or dark matter, was called for. Even a kinetic strike of sufficient velocity, like the one destroyed the turian city of Vallum on Taetrus, would be enough to cover the trail. Nothing would be left except dust, and since the entire city was dead collateral damage was not an issue. Best of all, it could be arranged from deep space, where no asari asset would be tied to the deed. The only question was how to make it happen.
Naranna sighed as her door chimed. "Come," she said to the air and sat up in her bed as the room's lights gradually built to full strength. A young girl of fifteen, a blink of an eye in the lifespan of the asari, entered the room carrying a breakfast tray. The girl smiled at her elder as she set the tray across Naranna's legs in the bed. Fresh eggs and chopped vegetables steamed on a plate surrounded by flowers. "Good morning, Matriarch."
"Good morning, child," Naranna said. "This looks wonderful." Breakfast service was standard in the dormitories of the Grand Quorum. After a long day of debates and an evening of reflection, rooms were always available for those awaiting transportation home, be it to a neighboring city or another world. Stress and confusion over travel plans were an unnecessary distraction. Even though Naranna lived in the same city as the Quorum, she often stayed overnight to get a jump on the day's business.
Today had to be no different, since not everyone would wake to see the sun.
The girl picked up a hand-operated mill. "Would you care for some fresh ground pepper, madam?"
Another chime sounded, this time out from the hall, followed by the soothing voice of a VI. "Medical assistance has been requested in this wing. Please clear the hall so emergency personnel may pass..."
"Oh no," the girl said, distracted.
"Oh my," Naranna said. "I do hope it's nothing serious. Yes, please. The pepper." The girl turned back to the tray and cranked the pepper mill over the eggs. "Would you be a dear and bring me my datapad please? It's over on the dresser."
"Of course, madam. Can I get you anything else?"
"No, thank you. This looks delicious."
"I'll be back in thirty minutes with today's schedules."
"Thank you, my dear." Naranna picked up her fork and took her first bite, oblivious to its taste and texture, pretending to pay no attention to the commotion outside as the girl opened the door to the hallway. She could hear many concerned voices outside. "What's going on out there?"
"I don't know," the girl said. "I'll find out. Excuse me..."
Naranna scooped another bite of egg into her mouth and swallowed, and picked up her datapad. Pages of news headlines scrolled by, as well as headers from dozens of new mail messages. Those should come first, she thought, especially the one marked high importance. But before she could tap the screen, the girl returned, tears in her eyes.
"Matriarch," she sobbed. "Come quickly!"
Like Naranna's own room, the quarters contained a single bed. A desk and chair and its own private restroom facilities. Nearly a dozen asari of all stages filled the room and spilled into the hall, their heads bowed with respect to the woman who lay unmoving on the bed with an untouched breakfast tray at her feet. A pair of matrons comforted another young girl who sat in the chair.
Naranna touched the shoulders of the asari in front of her, and they all stepped aside to let her pass. In the bed, Matriarch Collona lay on her side, still beneath the linens, one hand dangling over the side. Naranna reached out and took it in her own. It was cold and stiff. She closed her eyes and sighed deeply.
Matriarch Toroma watched the sad display. "The Goddess called her home. I'm sorry, Naranna."
"A peaceful death after a long life of servitude," Naranna said, still holding Collona's hand. "She deserved nothing less." Murmurs of appreciation echoed around the room from the gathered crowd, followed by silence as a pair of medical technicians arrived at the door. Without any urging, everyone backed away to let them work, even though by now nothing could be done. Naranna listened to the others as she walked back to her room.
"The universe never ceases to amaze," Yel said. "We're each but a second in time. Here for but a brief moment, and gone the next."
Toroma shook her head. "She was in such a state last night."
"Oh, yes... After hearing about the quarians. I wonder if they knew how much she cared for them..."
Naranna reached her door and paused at its threshold, slumping against the frame.
Naranna opened her eyes to see the young serving girl looking up at her, worry in her eyes.
"Are you all right?"
"Yes," Naranna straightened. "I'm... I just need a moment. Collona was a very old, very dear friend."
"Of course, madam," the girl said. When the elder asari took a step and faltered, the girl rushed to her side. Gently, she guided the frail, shaking Matriarch back to her room across the hall and helped guide her to bed. She pulled the breakfast tray up, but stopped when Naranna held her hand up, her eyes closed as she leaned against the pillows.
"Not now, dear."
The girl stood next to the bed, her hands clenched tight, her eyes damp with tears. "I'm so sorry, madam. I... If there's anything I can do for you...?"
Naranna opened her eyes and reached out to pat the girl's cheek. "That's enough for today. I think I need to be alone for a while. Thank you."
The girl blinked, shocked, saddened, and confused. But when a Matriarch gave an order it was to be followed. She bowed her head again and left the room, and the door slid shut behind her.
Naranna's eyes closed once more, and a dull blue glow shimmered across her entire body before fading away to nothing. She raised her head and tensed every muscle in her body, then relaxed all at once, repeating her mantras in succession in her mind, but peace would not come. She finally lay back into the pillows and stared at the ceiling and let out a long, deep breath.
I'm sorry, Collona, she thought. There wasn't any other way.
She looked down the bed to the serving tray. The thought of eating made her stomach burn. Her datapad lay next to the tray, the message window still blinking with its high-priority message. She sat up just far enough to put it into reach and lifted it to her aging eyes as she tapped it open. It opened with a passage from the book of Aeathea, a revered asari scholar. Naranna closed it and opened a secure browser and entered a password, as well as paused for a biometric scan. Aeathea was the codename given to an asari commando who had successfully infiltrated Cerberus at its highest levels. The operative had begun servicing the Illusive Man himself. As reclusive and careful as the terrorist leader had been, he still had a weakness, perhaps even a fetish for asari women. Once again, the Shadow Broker's intelligence was proven correct. It took a great deal of time and effort, and a great number of assets released "into the wild," but one finally paid off.
But as she read Aeathea's message, he began to tremble once more, though not for the benefit of anyone to see as the words scrolled across the screen: Cerberus assets at Raheel-Leyya relay confirm arrival of Normandy. Geth representation on board with stated goal of resuming negotiations. Awaiting instruction.
"Oh my goddess," Naranna said and collapsed back on the bed.
"This is a mistake." Shepard stood in the middle of the Normandy's hangar deck, his arms crossed, a deep scowl on his face. He stood surrounded by forty-one High Officers of the quarian Conclave, all looking upon him in silence. Upon the Normandy's arrival at Raheel-Leyya, the top level of the Migrant Fleet's civilian command structure asked to transfer to the Normandy to discuss the procedure for the newly re-opened negotiations with the geth.
Shepard had anticipated a party like the Admiralty Board consisting of three or four quarian captains. But ten times that number came pouring out of the quarian shuttle, barely larger than Normandy's Kodiak. They stopped at forty-one because they could fit no more aboard. Proceeding to the conference room would have been pointless - the hangar deck was the only space large enough to address them as a group. The quarians rarely did anything in moderation.
The Senior Captain of the Fleet, a quarian with an orange-banded environment suit named Kenna'Wylo vas Tundon, returned Shepard's unyielding posture as he stood in front of his people. He was the only one of the group who approached at all. The others kept a respectful distance away from the geth platforms in the middle of the hangar.
"This is not your decision, Commander," Wylo said. "The geth will appear in front of the Conclave aboard the Anba and state their case, in person, to the quarian people."
Shepard shook his head. Behind him, Tali, Legion and Mobile Platform Two watched with anticipation. He began to pace, shifting his focus from his friends to the quarian delegation surrounding them. After dealing with the Citadel, the Alliance Command, and Cerberus for so long, he should have been used to the powers that be ignoring his advice, but how much longer would he have to endure it?
"Captain, please, listen to me," Shepard said. He raised his voice so all of the gathered quarians could hear. "All of you. Putting all of the Conclave and the geth on one ship is a recipe for disaster. You can negotiate remotely. You can talk with them from literally anywhere in the galaxy. There is no need to be physically in the same place at the same time."
Wylo stiffened. "We will not hide behind radio waves, Commander."
Shepard clenched his fists. He looked at Tali, who seemed on the verge of jumping between them so he took a deep breath and opened his hands in front of him. "Captain Wylo, please. We still don't know what happened on the Rayya. We don't know who was responsible. We don't know if it was a lucky strike, a terrible accident, or if the perpetrators achieved exactly what they intended, whatever that might be. All we do know is that the most heavily-protected, most secure, most important ship in the Migrant Fleet was destroyed, and your top-level leadership killed. Until we can determine exactly what happened and why, concentrating the surviving quarian government in one place isn't just reckless, it's irresponsible, especially when safer measures are available. I won't allow it."
Wylo sighed. "Again, Commander Shepard, this is not your decision. The Conclave has called for the geth representative to appear on deck, and the geth have agreed. We are standing by to transfer the geth to the Anba. Whether or not you join us is up to you." He turned to look at Legion and Platform Two. "You may board at any time."
"No one's going anywhere," Shepard stepped between the two geth and the quarian captain, eliciting an excited murmur from the crowd.
Tali'Zorah moved to stand next to her captain, sweeping her eyes around the quarians surrounding them. None of them were armed, as per their boarding agreement. But they had sheer numbers, and believing the encounter would be peaceful (and smaller), Shepard had not requested any additional security on the hangar deck.
"Captains, please," Tali urged. "Commander Shepard's concerns are valid. He's acting out of concern for your safety and for the safety of the fleet."
"Why?" shouted a quarian from the crowd, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "Are the geth not as peaceful as we were lead to believe?"
Before Shepard could answer, another quarian replied, his voice equally tinged with anger. "The geth did not attack the Rayya. You need to stop spreading that lie, Fasha! You're only making things worse!"
"Don't talk to me about lies," Fasha retorted. "The geth are building a new liveship for us? Unbelievable. They're just going to hand it over to us, expecting nothing in return?"
"Where is this new ship," another asked. "And how do we know it won't be filled with drones just waiting to strike? Will we be allowed to inspect it before it joins the fleet?"
Like a needle touching a balloon, the entire hangar deck exploded into angry debate as the quarian captains all shouted to be heard over one another. Though they didn't come to blows, distinct groups soon developed, split along several lines; trust the geth, or not? Make peace and negotiate, or demand the return of their homeworld, using force if necessary?
Legion and Platform Two observed quietly, Tali looked on in horror, while Shepard just stood with his eyes closed and massaged his forehead with one hand. When he opened them, he found himself staring into the glowing eyes of Captain Wylo, who stood patiently with his back to the bickering crowd.
Shepard glanced at the debate raging about them. "With all due respect, sir, I'm not going to let my crew get wrapped up in this. We do this remotely, or not at all."
"Take a good look, Commander," Wylo said, not moving a centimeter, unfazed by the chaos around them, or even trying to stop it. "This is what's happening throughout our entire fleet, on every ship. Except it's not the politicians. It's the crews of food transports, systems engineers, repair technicians, the people who keep the Flotilla running. Clans that have been united for centuries are coming apart at the seals. We're facing the greatest threat to our very existence since the Uprising... and it's not the geth that will be our undoing this time."
Wylo took a step forward. Shepard could see the exhaustion and weariness in Wylo's eyes, and hear it in his voice. "A thousand quarians could live on a ship such as this, and your crew numbers what? Less than thirty if I recall. When was the last time your ship saw safe harbor, and your crew given leave? Not long, I imagine. A week, perhaps two?"
Shepard nodded. He remembered the cramped conditions aboard the Rayya, the endless streams of quarians that flowed through her corridors. How many of them could his quarters shelter alone, at the top of the ship? Because of the political turmoil since the Normandy's return, the ship had been unable to dock for resupply or repairs for almost a week and the pressure was getting to them. What if the Normandy could find no safe harbor for the rest of their lives? How long would they last? That was reality for the entire Migrant Fleet.
Wylo obviously read Shepard's sudden change of expression. "I know you mean well, and we appreciate everything you've done for us... the sacrifices you've made to bring them here. But you can't possibly understand what we're facing, Commander. By extension, you also don't understand what it will take to fix it. You can't."
Shepard glanced past the quarian to the verbal melee still in motion behind him. "If you put everyone on that one ship with the geth and there is another attack, you will be killed. All of you."
"I don't want to die, Shepard. None of us do. Believe me, we know the risks. All of us. But if we don't act soon," for the first time, Wylo looked over his shoulder, "it may not matter. The loss of the Rayya is only the start of our problems. Unless we find common course, the Fleet will tear itself apart. You have no idea what the presence of the geth on the Anba will mean to my people. For the first time in three centuries, we will finally be able to confront the force that drove us from our homeworld, directly. There's not a quarian alive that doesn't want to see that happen, regardless of the outcome. If I may?"
The quarian stepped slowly around Shepard to where the two geth stood. The shouted arguments and insults faded. Wylo looked past Shepard, and the human turned around to a sea of unblinking eyes glowing behind faceplates of all colors, watching with awe as their High Captain stood next to two geth. The entire hangar deck fell silent.
Shepard turned back to Wylo, standing next to Tali and the geth and stared. He'd gotten so used to Tali and Legion standing together so often now it was natural. But no other quarian had been this close to geth, ever, without death following close behind for at least one of the parties. Captain Wylo's posture indicated he wanted nothing to do but run away, but he forced himself to stand within arm's reach of the machines which annihilated his kind. Shepard looked down at the deck and nodded to himself.
"Shepard-Commander," Platform Two said.
"What is it, Blue?" Shepard already knew what the geth was going to say, and his answer before the it ever spoke.
"Request permission to transfer to the Anba to engage in negotiations."
"I'm going too," Tali said, and she wasn't asking permission. Shepard had heard that tone and seen the shimmer of tears in her eyes too many times the past few days to even try to change her mind. She quietly wrung her hands in front of her.
That left only one other voice left to be heard as far as Shepard was concerned. He looked over at Legion, who stared back at him with his glowing white eye. The geth's facial plates expanded ever so slightly.
"I'll need to get into a suit," Shepard said.
The High Captain gave a grateful nod.
"We'll transfer over on our own shuttle," Shepard said. "And I want the Normandy hanging right off Anba's bow the entire time we're there."
Wylo stood straight. "We are prepared to welcome the Normandy as part of the fleet, and the additional security it represents. I will notify Naval Operations to ensure safe passage and grant you appropriate security clearances."
"I'd appreciate that."
Wylo bowed, and then extended his hand. "Thank you, Commander."
"Don't thank me yet," Shepard said as he returned the handshake. He should have been happier about moving forward, but wasn't. "We're a long way from the finish line."
The solitary human stood next to the shuttle's boarding ramp and bid farewell to the departing captains like an usher waiting for patrons to leave his theater. When the ramp retracted and the hatch closed, he walked aft to the waiting elevator so the bay could depressurize, for he was the only one left who needed the atmosphere. Legion, Platform Two, and Tali waited inside. Shepard punched the button for the engineering deck, then his quarters.
He kept focused on the deck indicator on the panel next to the door. "You three go make sure Gabby's got everything she needs in engineering. She's going to be all alone down there until we get back. And then grab whatever you're going to need for the trip over there."
"Daniels-Gabriella will not be alone," Platform Two said. "We will place all of our standard platforms under her command."
"Sounds good," Shepard said and held the door open for them. "Regardless, make sure Engineering is ready for anything. Meet me back in the shuttle bay in thirty minutes."
"Aye, Commander," Tali said and stepped out. "Shepard?" It never failed. No matter what the situation, no matter how exhausted or stressed out she could get, when she stood close to him, no words could come out of her mouth. But when she looked at him, even though his expression was calm, his eyes held nothing but worry. "Thank you," she stammered.
"Thirty minutes," Shepard said, and he let the hatch close. He leaned against the back wall and looked up with a heavy sigh. Even after repair the elevator's ceiling was still scorched and scarred around the corners from where the breaching charge burned through at Dashta.
Shepard shook his head. "This is a mistake."
Back in the cockpit, Joker kept focused on the narrow flight corridor provided by the Flotilla's traffic control. Whatever Shepard had said to the quarian delegation worked. The surrounding ships had changed from escort to support roles, with Normandy able to dictate how she would maneuver within Flotilla safety parameters. It was a far cry from their last visit to the Fleet, when the Admirals placed so many restrictions on where and what Normandy could do that Joker read a magazine the entire time while EDI followed their flight plan to the centimeter.
Either the Conclave liked Shepard more, or they were just that desperate. Either way, it didn't seem to put the Commander at ease. If anything, he was even more tense and had that little crease in his forehead again. For once, Joker decided to keep his mouth shut as Shepard briefed Garrus and Miranda behind him.
Though fully armored save for his helmet, Shepard carried no weapons. That was a stipulation of going aboard the quarian capitol ship - no one but the Fleet Marines were to be armed. But that didn't mean help wouldn't be close by. That was the condition Shepard demanded. If they wanted the Normandy's help, the Normandy was going to be on station the entire time, period.
"I want the entire squad locked, loaded and ready to board the entire time we're over there," Shepard said. "Weapons, sinks and ammo for everybody waiting on the Kodiak. Garrus, Tali gave us the schematics of the Anba. I want a boarding plan for every deck, and at least two exit strategies for each..."
For the next fifteen minutes, Shepard paced and gave orders, pausing only to pull up schematics or to ask if there were any questions.
"How long should we plan to be here?" Miranda asked.
Shepard sighed. "I don't know. A day? A week? We'll know pretty quick. The geth are going to state the case for a cessation of hostilities to the Conclave, at which point the Conclave will either accept or decline. If they decline, we leave. If they don't, then the actual negotiations will begin. And at that point, we stick around until they feel comfortable enough to talk on their own."
"And you're expecting trouble?" asked Garrus, examining the Anba's deck plans in his visor. It wasn't a large ship by quarian standards, yet still carried a compliment numbering in the thousands. Fighting through the decks wouldn't be the issue, it would be the hundreds of bodies they would leave along the way.
"I honestly don't know what to expect. I just want to be ready for anything. Hopefully, it won't be necessary, but better to have it and not need it, right?"
Shepard turned to Miranda and gave her a slight smile. "XO, has the conn."
"Aye, sir," Miranda said. " I have the conn. Good luck over there."
Shepard let out a deep breath. Regardless of what happened, he had the best in the galaxy backing him up. He gave Joker's chair a thump on the back. "Keep the engine running, huh Joker?"
"You got it, Commander."
Shepard glanced over his pilot through the forward windows towards a brilliantly illuminated block of a ship that must have been a star liner in its earlier life. Now, it served as the meeting place for the last remaining government for the entire quarian species, and possibly their last hope for survival. But now, all the pieces were in place, both the quarian and geth were eager to talk, and the geth were practically begging to help their creators. This time, he thought, they might pull it off.
He smiled at the thought until he caught sight of a dark shape looming beyond. A dimly lit crescent moon hung in space, once bright white, now dull gray, stripped of its outer hull like a skinned animal. An ugly ragged hole large enough for the Normandy to fly through dominated its port side, and the once spinning sphere was now frozen with rigor mortis. It took a moment for Shepard to realize what he was seeing, for the blown-out wreck of the Rayya looked nothing like it had during their last visit.Shepard turned back toward access way, trying to put the doomed liveship and the thousands who perished aboard her from his mind as he and Garrus made their way to the hangar bay and the waiting shuttle.