What the Future Will Bring
Sitting on the Kodiak's aft bench, Kal'Reegar had a perfect view of the Rayya through the starboard window as the shuttle approached the Anba. He clenched his hands together so tightly that he could feel the strain in his bones. For as long as he could remember, the liveship's sphere had never ceased rotating. It was unstoppable and perpetual as it rolled through space, continually driving the Migrant Fleet forward. Now, stripped of its exterior hull, its cadaver hung motionless in the darkness while the Fleet worked to salvage what they could.
Whoever's responsible will never be dead enough, he thought. Unable to bear it anymore, he forced his eyes from the window to look about the shuttle's cramped crew compartment.
On the port side, Tali and the two geth kept their eyes on Shepard as he leaned forward and spoke to them. Whatever he was saying, he had their complete attention, but helmeted and transmitting over comms as Shepard was, Reegar could not hear. As much as Reegar respected the Normandy crew, the sight of the geth platforms roaming freely about their ship made him shudder every time he saw one. And Tali'Zorah treated one of them as if it were a friend. It was a far cry from the woman his men had died to protect from the geth on Haestrom.
Still, the sight of Tali made him smile. Regardless of what else had happened on this crazy trip, the duplicity of the Admiralty Board, and the negotiations with the geth, he'd accomplished his mission. Tali had made it safely back to the Flotilla. But he still wasn't sure about the geth she'd brought with her, or he amount of firepower Shepard was bringing with him.
Across from him sat Garrus Vakarian, studying schematics of the Anba on his omnitool, pausing now and again to adjust an image in the tactical visor beneath his helmet. Next to Vakarian, the human bounty hunter obsessively rubbed his rifle with a chamois. Next to him sat the human thief and the former Alliance soldier, both involved in their own private conversation. To Reegar's left sat the asari warrior, deep in meditation, and then the hulking krogan taking up two seats next to her. From what he'd seen, the six of them alone could wreak havoc like the fleet had never seen. Reegar looked back across to Garrus. "Shepard expecting trouble?"
"Humans have an expression," Garrus said, glancing up from his omnitool. "Plan for the worst, hope for the best."
For an instant, the Fleet Marine's gut tightened at the thought of a running battle erupting on the Anba, requiring a mad dash back to the ship as had happened at Dashta. But this time it wouldn't be some Terminus shithole bearing the brunt. It would be the Flotilla's capitol, and the bodies lining the corridors would be quarian. On Dashta there had been no question where he aimed his weapon. Whose side would he be on if things got ugly with the geth now? He looked back out the window at the ruined liveship beyond. "If we haven't seen the worst yet, I hate to think of what's coming."
Garrus switched off his omni. "That's why you hope for the best. Gives you something positive to think about instead."
"Never figured you for an optimist, Vakarian."
Garrus shook his head. "I prefer to think of myself as a realist, actually. So what's next for you, Reegar?"
"Me? I report to the officer in charge as soon as I set foot on deck. Go in for debriefing, then get thrown back into circulation. I'm still on the shit list for what I said at Tali's trial. Hell, they'll probably send me back to teach HVAC techs and cargo wranglers how not to perforate their suits with their own sidearms."
"A tragic waste of talent."
Reegar shrugged. "I go where they tell me."
Garrus leaned forward. "Look, Kal... Has Shepard had a chance to talk to you yet?"
"Possibilities for the future."
"The future," Reegar settled back in his seat and looked at Tali and the geth sitting next to each other. "In all honesty, I've never been more afraid of anything in my life, what might happen in the next few hours. What comes to pass if this works, what happens if it doesn't. How often can you really say that history is unfolding right in front of you? And for good or bad, you can't tell which way you want to see it go? Don't get me wrong, I know Commander Shepard is on the level. And Tali, if there's anyone who ever proved her loyalty to the fleet, it's her, even after everything she's been through. But gods be damned... The geth are here now and... What was that human saying you just told me? Hope for the best, plan for the worst? Gods help me, I can't tell which one's which. I've been training my whole life to destroy the geth. It's all I've ever known. The future? I think I liked it better when it was set, and we knew where we were going."
Garrus stared at Reegar from behind his helmet's face plate. "Hmm. I was really asking if Shepard had talked to you about transferring to the Normandy, on a permanent basis."
Reegar blinked. "What?"
"Well the squad's a bit shorthanded now. Shepard thought you might be able to help us out..."
"Oh," Reegar said. The humans next to Garrus all looked at him, and he could tell the asari on his left was listening even though she wasn't making eye contact. Would Shepard still want him aboard if he'd heard what Reegar had just said? Or the rest of them for that matter? He hadn't exactly put his best foot forward on the Normandy, either. They all thought of Legion as a friend, and now they were all watching, judging him. How could he explain it to any of them in a way they could understand?
Maybe he couldn't. Reegar looked about at the alien faces surrounding him. He smiled, making his glowing eyes scrunch up behind his suit's mask. "Well... Until the Fleet gets its business sorted out, my place is here. You know?"
Shepard's squad all nodded in unison and went back to their business as Reegar looked back out the window. The shuttle rotated on its axis, and now only the Anba was in view. When Reegar looked around once more, only Vakarian still stared at him. The turian didn't press him, though. Garrus gave a short nod, and then went back to studying the schematics on his omnitool. There was nothing else to say. Reegar leaned his head against the Kodiak's hull and waited for the shuttle to dock.
Decontamination of the Kodiak in one of Anba's hangar decks only took a few minutes as Shepard's team transferred already wearing their individual environment suits. After surface irradiation and a blast of antiseptic jets, the interior and exterior of the Kodiak were suitable for docking. This particular hangar deck of the Anba stood empty with no other ships because of its special cargo. No ship captain, even for the smallest vessel in the fleet, wanted to risk exposure to the geth platforms disembarking on the quarian ship. Only a squad of quarian Fleet Marines manned a bay that should have been bustling with activity around a dozen ships.
The Kodiak's door opened, and six passengers jumped out from the docked shuttle: two quarian, a human, a turian, and two geth platforms. The quarian marines stood at attention as the delegation came aboard.
"Commander Shepard," one of the marines stepped forward. "Lieutenant Kulli. My detail is to escort you to the Conclave chamber, if you will follow me, sir."
Shepard looked about the vacant hangar deck. The last time he had boarded a quarian vessel, the captain had been on hand to greet them. Not wanting to get bogged down in protocol, he only nodded. "Thank you, Lieutenant. This is Garrus Vakarian. He's in command of our security element."
"Yes, sir," Kulli said. "Mister Vakarian vas Normandy, As per the agreement, you and your team will remain here. Any incursion beyond this dock by you or your team is forbidden without consent of the Captain of the Anba or approval of the Conclave. Is that understood?"
Garrus glanced at Shepard. There was only one voice of authority as far as he was concerned. "Understood, Lieutenant."
Kulli looked to the geth, and even behind his mask his apprehension was obvious to everyone around him. But instead of talking to them, he addressed Shepard. "Here are the rules. Any attempt by the geth to access shipboard networks will result in the immediate destruction of these platforms. Is that understood?"
Shepard looked at the pair of geth platforms and waited. Neither of them made any attempt to respond. "There won't be any trouble, Lieutenant. You have my word."
Kulli's eyes darted between the human and the geth. He nodded toward the hangar deck's main exit. "Very well, sir. If you will follow me."
Shepard, the two geth platforms and Tali followed their marine escort to the exit. Kal'Reegar stood next to Garrus at the base of the Kodiak's landing ramp. Two more quarians stepped forward to escort Reegar to his briefing and motioned for him to follow.
Reegar held up a hand. "Tali," he called out.
Tali stopped and turned to look back at him. Legion stopped right next to her, and the blue geth and Commander Shepard stopped along with the marines escorting them. Tali stared at Reegar with an expression he'd never before seen in her eyes. Confusion, hesitation maybe? She was caught in the middle of a triangle, between the captain of her ship, a lifelong friend, and the sworn enemy of her people.
Hope for the best, plan for the worst, Vakarian had said. Reegar still had no idea which was which. "Good serving with you again," he said.
Tali walked towards Reegar, her arms spread wide to hug her friend. "Thank you, Kal. For everything."
Reegar returned the embrace, but released and took a step back with a glance toward the geth. "Do right by the Fleet, ma'am."
Reegar looked to Vakarian, who gave him another nod, and then to the only human on deck. "Commander? It's been an honor. But this is where we part ways."
Shepard walked back to him, a knowing look in his eyes behind his mask. "Thanks for your help at Dashta."
"My pleasure, Shepard."
"You know, if your next assignment isn't everything you hoped it would be..."
"I know how to get in touch with you, sir. For what it's worth... I don't know if I'm the right man for the job. Besides, I've got my responsibilities here."
Shepard extended his hand. "It's a standing invitation, regardless."
Reegar returned the handshake, human style. "Thanks, Commander. And, hey... If anyone in the Conclave gives you any static this time, let me know. We'll take 'em on together, just like last time."
"Will do," Shepard said. He clapped Reegar on the shoulder and turned back to his escort. "Lead the way."
Kal'Reegar watched the delegation head for the bay's main hatch with sadness in his eyes. Leaving the Fleet was out of the question. Serving on a ship with geth was equally implausible. But was that the real reason? He watched Tali'Zorah fall into step behind Shepard, flanked by the two geth platforms. Was it his feelings toward the geth that made him say no? Or was it what Tali said to him in the Normandy's galley that made the decision for him?
"Sir?" A young corporal stepped in front of him to get his attention. "Right this way for debriefing."
"Right," Reegar said, and followed his fellow soldier toward a secondary exit, where he would be able to divulge everything he'd seen in the name of defending the Migrant Fleet.
The Anba's central corridor was empty, which immediately set Tali on edge. No space on any quarian ship was ever truly vacant, especially on a ship like the Anba. Thousands of people lived here, and on this special occasion, their numbers would double with the arrival of the Captains of the Conclave. But as far as Tali could see, the great hall was empty all the way to the bank of elevators at the fore end. Where was everybody?
"Keep your eyes open," Shepard said over the tactical net as their escort of Fleet Marines led them to the elevators, two leading, and two following behind. He looked over his shoulder toward the hangar deck where the Kodiak was docked. "Garrus, how do you read?"
"Loud and clear, Commander. We've got a solid fix on your location. Standing by."
"Good," Shepard said. At the first sign of trouble, Garrus and the rest of the squad would fight their way to the delegation, while presumably Shepard, Tali, and the geth would fight their way back. "Normandy, how do you read?"
"Same, Shepard," Miranda said over the net, routed through the shuttle. "Loud and clear. The quarian navy is maintaining the no-fly zone around the Anba. All nearby traffic has been re-routed. If anyone spools up a drive or locks on within ten thousand klicks, we'll know it."
"Roger, keep me posted," Shepard said. "We're proceeding to the elevators. Stand by."
Tali caught every motion of Shepard's helmet as she walked behind him up the corridor. His head pivoted left and right, up and down, scanning for threats as they advanced. Not that any of them could really do anything if trouble started, short of taking weapons from the guards that escorted them. Tali hadn't given a second thought to coming aboard the Anba unarmed. It was standard procedure for any visiting dignitary. Now, corridors she could have walked with her eyes closed felt foreign and hostile. She longed for the comforting weight of a shotgun on her leg, the feel of her elbow brushing against the pistol holstered on her hip. She had to settle for the knowledge that a fully-armed assault team stood ready on the Kodiak, ready to storm the Anba at the first sign of trouble.
Tali had been aboard to see the Conclave so often in her life that her friends and clan joked she should change her name to vas Anba. She couldn't count the times she'd accompanied her father when the Conclave demanded that the Admiralty Board appear to discuss policy. The Board was perpetually at odds with some members of the quarian government for any number of reasons and rarely offered a warm reception, but the Captains of the Conclave always went to great lengths to make Admiral Zorah and her daughter feel welcome.
Some simply wanted to curry favor with a sitting Admiral, but most saw the elder Zorah and his daughter as the saviors of their people; two of the greatest quarian minds working to end the geth threat and return their people home to Rannoch. Rael'Zorah took his research so seriously Tali often saw him only aboard the Anba, and even then, she had to invite herself. For her, familial bonds were just one more casualty of the geth uprising.
Now her father was dead and she strode down Anba's receiving corridor not behind quarian admiralty but her human captain, next to two of the synthetic beings which had all but eradicated her kind from the galaxy. The corridor itself was a monument to the past. Flags from around Rannoch draped from the walls, ghosts from a time when the quarians thought of themselves as citizens of different nations rather than ships. What would her father think now, Tali thought, escorting a pair of geth platforms to the Conclave Chamber to address the Conclave directly? Would he have been proud? Intrigued? Or terrified?
The delegation reached the first intersection, and finally the citizens of the Anba appeared. A cordon of Fleet Marines blocked the side corridors. Beyond, a sea of faceless, glowing eyes stared from beneath cowls and masks of all colors, all trying to catch a glimpse the geth. There was no sound, no movement. Only unrelenting stares from behind a wall of armed soldiers tasked with blocking the path between the quarian people and the sentient machines.
And if it was not lost on Tali, certainly Commander Shepard recognized that the quarian marines on guard did not face the gathered crowds, but rather the path taken by the geth. The soldiers' weapons were pointed toward the deck, but it was clear which way they were prepared to fire in the event of an incident.
Tali kept her head held high and tried to keep her posture relaxed as if she were strolling with her friends on any concourse found on the Citadel, Illium or any other place their voyages had taken them. She gave silent thanks that Platform Two had obsessed about its appearance aboard the Normandy. Tali had originally dismissed its efforts to clean up as pointless, and was offended when it implied that she and Legion might do the same. But Blue's assessment was correct. Had Legion marched by now with its mismatched panels and ragged hole in its chest, the masses might have reacted with fear. Now, covered in gleaming white armor with a red stripe down its right arm, Legion marched in step with its Captain and looked like it belonged there.
Tali also switched to attire more appropriate for standing before the Conclave. She still wore the same suit, but replaced her lavender-swirled wraps with bands of gold along with a shiny brim over her helmet. She did keep the patterned cowl over her head so she would be recognized, but her overall appearance was now much more formal and businesslike. Tali's father always gave her cold stares when she appeared before the Conclave in what he called "party attire," and she often did it to spark some kind of interaction with him. But now, the desire to rebel just wasn't there anymore.
They passed four more intersections, each under the watchful eyes of marines and the quarian people. Tali let out a sigh of relief when the party reached the elevator, though Commander Shepard didn't relax at all. Even though there had been no hostility, the haul from the docks seemed longer than even the trek through the dark corridors of the Collector Base. It didn't help that their armed guard seemed to be containing them rather than protecting them from the crowd. Inside the elevator, the Normandy crew faced forward but the four armed quarians stood in front of the door facing inward, their glowing eyes locked on the geth.
"First time seeing one up close?" Shepard asked.
Lieutenant Kulli nodded as it looked the two geth over from head to toe. "Yes, sir."
Shepard nodded. "What about humans?"
"Ever seen a human up close?"
The Lieutenant looked at his subordinates, who all shrugged. "No sir. Not in person."
"Just so you know, I'm the one you've got to worry about." The quarians exchanged confused glances, then scowled behind their masks. "Yeah," Shepard looked toward the elevator display as it passed between decks. It was at least as fast as the elevators on the Citadel. "I may not be armed, but I sure can shoot my mouth off. Put me in front of a bunch of bureaucrats, no telling what'll happen. Just ask Tali."
The marines laughed, and for the first time they took their eyes from the geth.
Tali smiled at Shepard. He had the wonderful ability to put others at ease in the most tense situations, especially average people who found themselves out of their element. "He isn't lying," she told the marines. "There's a reason the Normandy's banned from most of the galaxy. We've got more travel restrictions levied against us than the Migrant Fleet."
The marines laughed again. Shepard smiled behind his mask. "Yeah, I may get us kicked off this ship before we even get to the chamber this time. You all may get to go home early."
Kulli grinned, his demeanor almost friendly now. "Well you sure gave the Admiralty Board hell, sir. They've been replaying vids of it non-stop. And ma'am, if you don't mind me saying, it was a travesty after everything you've done for us. And everybody knows it." All of the marines nodded in agreement.
"Thank you, Lieutenant," Tali said. "That means a lot to me."
The soldiers looked between the quarian and the geth standing in front of them. The marines now examined the geth with curiosity, instead of scrutinizing them for hints of hostile activity. "They really part of your crew, ma'am?"
"This one is," Tali said, nodding at the white geth. "Legion vas Normandy, Assistant Engineer."
"No way," one of the marines said, looking to her companions in disbelief. "You let a geth into your engineering spaces?"
"Every day," Tali said. She put a hand on Legion's shoulder, who responded with a rippling of its head flaps. Neither of the geth had said a word since coming aboard. Were they just being cautious, or were they just content to observe, as usual? "We're lucky to have them."
A chime sounded, indicating they had reached their destination. The elevator doors opened, and for once Tali was sorry the conversation was cut short. The marines might not be friendly towards the geth, but even in the short time they'd been in their presence, it was obvious they were no longer afraid.
Captain Wylo stood on the other side of the door, surrounded by his own entourage of assistants and personal guard, all glaring at the pair of geth platforms in the elevator. No one moved or said a word. Wylo stiffened and forced himself forward, his voice overtly calm and pleasant. "Ah, Commander Shepard, Chief Engineer Zorah, welcome aboard the Anba."
"Captain Wylo," Shepard extended his arms as he'd seen Tali do so many times before. "Keelah se'lai."
"Keelah se'lai," came the muted response from the quarians assembled in the corridor beyond.
"The Conclave has assembled," Wylo explained. "They are waiting for us in the chamber."
"Shepard-Commander," Legion said. "We are detecting active probing of our network ports from multiple locations on this deck over a broad range of frequencies."
"Confirmed," Platform Two said, turning to Captain Wylo. "What is the purpose of these scans?"
Shepard turned to face the High Captain as well. "What's going on?"
"My apologies," Wylo said. "Our internal security is analyzing the geth's network state. This will be a one-time process. It's also fair to warn you that all transmissions from both platforms will be constantly monitored. You were provided with a list of frequencies that are to be used only for communications with your shuttle before coming aboard. If we detect transmissions on any other band it will be considered a hostile act."
"That was the arrangement," Shepard said, "and the geth agreed. Why the show?"
Wylo looked at the deck. "Forgive us, Commander. Having geth platforms aboard ship, let alone our capitol, is not standard procedure. Yhere are quite a few parties who are understandably concerned. I must also reiterate that attempted access to any shipboard or personal system by the geth will be met with strictest of countermeasures that will result in the destruction of these platforms. Is that understood?"
Shepard bristled beneath his armor at the threat, but turned to the the geth since it was directed at them.
Blue's flaps expanded. "We will comply. We will make no attempt to interface with creator networks. We understand your concerns. We do not wish to provoke hostility."
"Thank you," Wylo said, visibly shaken. "And we, of course, will make no attempt to interface with your networks, as agreed." Like he had done in the Normandy's hangar, Wylo moved to stand in front of Platform Two. Everyone in the corridor, the diplomats, the security personnel, the marine guard, all froze in place to watch the Conclave's highest officer stand face to face with the pair of geth. Even Tali held her breath.
Wylo seemed to have trouble finding the right words as he stared at the white camera eye in front of him. He cleared his throat. "Welcome aboard the Anba. Keelah se'lai."
Blue and Legion both clasped their hands in front of their waist, a sign of submission. "Keelah se'lai," they said in unison.
"Follow me, please." Wylo said. He walked next to Shepard as they proceeded down another corridor. Like the marines in the elevator, he seemed more at ease, though he still had the air of someone who had just survived a hovercar accident. "Well, that went a lot easier than I expected."
Shepard nodded. "We all want this to work, Captain. If it does, there's no telling how many of your problems will get solved."
"You can't begin to understand what this means, Commander. It's inconceivable that the Admirals tried to exclude the Conclave in these matters."
"For what it's worth, I don't think they all had bad intentions. Only one or two of them."
Wylo looked at him as they walked. "It's not just the Admirals, Commander. Remember what happened in your hangar when we came aboard. Not everyone is receptive to the idea of peace. When you enter the chamber, keep that in mind. I'll do my best to maintain order."
Shepard nodded. "As long as you can keep Consul Rilos away from me this time, everything will be fine."
Wylo straightened in his suit but kept walking. "Amista'Rilos died aboard the Rayya."
Shepard clamped his eyes shut and mustered as much sincerity in his voice as he could. "I meant no disrespect. Please accept my condolences."
Wylo gave a curt nod and the group walked on in silence. The marine guard led the Normandy crew through a curved corridor and dropped them off in an empty antechamber filled with chairs like a classroom before departing to the floor. Banners of all shapes and colors draped the walls, except for a pane glass window overlooking a giant auditorium.
"One moment, please," Wylo said from next to the door. "They are concluding the roll call. We'll be going in a few moments."
Tali had been in the antechamber many times, but she could see Shepard craning his neck to look out the window. She nodded her head and led him forward for a better view. The two geth followed.
A huge arena with thousands of seats face a central square at its center, brightly illuminated from above by spotlights in the ceiling. Four giant holo screens formed a box which hung from the ceiling, displaying the roll and other information for the thousands of quarians seated below. Like the antechamber, the walls of the auditorium were draped with banners and flags around its entire circumference.
"So this is where the Conclave meets," Shepard asked.
"That's right," Tali looked over the floor of the bowl. "Ordinarily, they only meet in person once every hundred cycles, but this… this is a special occasion."
"How many are here?"
"Almost nine thousand. They've been gathering since we got underway. Captains of ships with compliments of over twenty thousand have a seat. Captains of smaller ships watch remotely unless they're bringing legislation to the High Officers in person. And when they're not in session, the chamber is used for housing."
"Housing? People live here? What, do they remove the chairs? Put up dividers?"
"Of course not," Tali said. "That would be a waste of space. We construct a pair of decks over the middle of the floor."
Shepard scanned the crowd below. The quarians bustled in and out of their seats, their arms aglow with omnitools, lights blinking on their chins as they conversed. "Looks like a stadium before the big show," he said. He blinked, realizing that's exactly what it was. The Anba had been a passenger liner in its past and the quarians had turned a stage for pop entertainment into the seat of their government. The Normandy delegation waited in what used to be a luxury suite.
Captain Wylo walked up from behind. "The Conclave has assembled. It's time."
Tali gave the two geth a nervous glance, then her gaze finally fell upon her captain. She took a deep breath.
"You ready for this?" Shepard asked.
"No," Tali said nervously.
"Me neither," Shepard smiled at her. "Just try not to beat anyone up this time, okay?"
Tali laughed in spite of herself. "I won't as long as you don't say anything stupid."
Shepard grinned. "No promises."
"Well... Shall we?"
"After you, Miss vas Normandy."
"No, sir," Tali said, standing aside. "A Captain always leads on the Anba."
Wylo lead them down several flights of stairs to the auditorium floor. Shepard activated his comms once more. "Garrus, do you read?"
"Roger, Shepard. Everything all right? All of the quarians out here seem to be a bit distracted."
"The show's about to start. We're about to go in. Stand by."
"We've got it! Geth carrier isolated!"
Fassnol'Rundan vas Moreh hunched over the shoulder of the senior comm tech at his station to examine the holo display more closely. Because of the location of the Conclave Chamber on the Anba, transmissions made by the geth delegation could only reach reach the human shuttle, which then re-transmitted everything to the Normandy. The protocol and encryption utilized by Cerberus for their personal comms was unknown, so encoded transmissions by Shepard or his crew were recorded for later analysis.
But that didn't matter. The signal broadcast from the Normandy toward the Raheel-Leyya relay was similarly encrypted, but that made no difference to Rundan. What did matter was that the Normandy wasn't transmitting to the relay at all, but to one of the alien ships clustered nearby, kept at bay by the Migrant Fleet Navy. The target may have been receiving the Cerberus transmission, but it was relaying data to the relay in a format identical to the transmissions picked up by the quarian scout ship monitoring the geth hub at Ma-At. Sent on a narrow beam, it would have been undetectable except for the thousands of ships listening for it between the Anba and the local mass relay.
"You've pinpointed the receiver?"
"Yes, sir," the comms officer said. "The Normandy is transmitting to a ship near the relay. A volus trader, the Pollus Maskawa. But it's definitely not volus. And sir?"
The officer pointed at his screen. "It's bi-directional. They are transmitting as well as receiving. It's the geth, sir."
Rundan patted the comm tech on the shoulder. The new transmission protocol was still a mystery to the geth specialists in the Fleet, but the more the mobile platform on the Anba conferred with the collective, the easier the protocol would become to break. With thousands of the finest minds and machines throughout the Migrant Fleet already working to crack it, it was only a matter of time.And if we succeed, Rundan thought, all the work, all the disasters and sacrifices up to this point will have not been in vain. "Record it all," he said, and opened his omni-tool to share the good news with his superiors. "Take in everything."