"All right," Shepard downed another gulp of coffee. "Is there anything else we need to cover?"
Around the briefing room, omnitools and holograpghic projections reflected from the table's smooth surface as the ring of occupants sifted through data. Glasses of all shapes and sizes, filled with whatever stimulant a particular species preferred were in arm's reach of all but one of them. The chaos and discord from before was only a memory lost in the sea information which they now worked together to navigate.
Tali tried to keep calm as she scrolled through page after page of Cerberus intelligence estimates, Council decrees and political nonsense. Throughout the briefing she kept quiet, barely paying attention as the rest of them talked in circles. It was all just static to her. All she cared about was news of the Flotilla which remained frustratingly out of reach.
She didn't know why she should be surprised. No one in the room was concerned with the quarians, and the human-centric intel provided by Cerberus contained nothing at all about the goings-on in the fleet. All anyone seemed to care about now was the expulsion of the human councilor and the disappearance of the geth. Every species, no matter how noble, looked out for itself. She looked sadly at Shepard, who earlier spoke to her so encouragingly about the situation her people faced. Now, even he, just as everyone else, seemed to forget the quarians. Well, she thought, he's asking. Maybe it's time you spoke up. Several of the squad were planning on leaving the Normandy. Maybe Shepard's right. It's time for you to go back to the Fleet and tell them everything you know. No one else can. But leaving her ship crippled? Leaving Shepard? She could barely imagine it let alone say it aloud.
But before she could speak, Mordin held up a hand. "Disturbing thought... must be explored. Possibility that geth communication blackout not by choice."
"What do you mean?" Shepard asked. Tali leaned back in her chair to wait her turn.
Mordin stood and began to pace. "Heretics constructed virus with intent of infecting true geth population. Legion reversed application, resulting in elimination of heretics. Quarian experiments on Alarei, Cerberus project Overlord. Similar aims, both unsuccessful. However, heretic rewrite validates proof of concept for control or culling of geth population. Research by organics has undoubtedly continued."
"And what if someone was successful?" Garrus said.
Miranda nodded in agreement. "The whole galaxy knew the geth were attempting communication with the quarians. What are the chances they could have been compromised?"
"But Legion's still online," Jacob said. "He'd know if that happened, wouldn't he?"
A loud buzz from Legion caused everyone to turn toward the synthetic. The smaller lights around its head flickered minutely and its head flaps arched then retracted. "There are no geth nodes in this region of the galaxy. We have been out of contact with the collective since the Normandy passed through the Omega Four relay."
The organics in the room glanced at one another. Tali's stomach turned cold. Her father worked relentlessly on just such a project, to either regain control of the geth or eliminate them as a threat. Admiral Xen seemed particularly interested in that research. Mordin's theory could be more correct than he knew. What if the quarian acceptance of peace talks had just been a front, a way to gain access to the geth network? The endless stalling, the utter lack of progress... Had it all been to buy time to sabotage the geth? Had it been a trap the entire time?
She watched as Legion suffered through another round of electronic convulsions. Working closely with it, she was becoming attuned to its moods and mannerisms. Now, she could almost hear all 1,183 voices crying out, searching for an answer. Legion was used to operating on its own, but the prospect of not having the rest of the collective to fall back on had to be daunting. Could Legion's programs, together, experience fear? For all the quarians' internal strife, she at least knew her people were still alive. But Legion? For the first time, Tali felt someone needed to get home more than she did.
Shepard stood up and put his palms on the table. He hoped he sounded more confident than he felt and tried not to stare at Legion, or think he might be addressing the last of its kind. "OK let's not jump to any conclusions. We don't know what's going on back there, but maybe we can figure it out. EDI, any luck in finding out how all of this got started?"
EDI's voice was calm, as always. "The earliest reference I can find to negotiations between the quarian and geth is an extranet posting on the main forum of the Fleet and Flotilla entertainment site."
Tali covered her faceplate in her hands. "Ugh. I hate that vid. It shows nothing of what life is really like in the Flotilla. It downplays all the real struggles we go through in favor of fashion, drama and trashy romance."
Jacob winced. "Isn't that one of those shows aimed at teenagers? Lot of angsty dialogue and meaningful looks? Hard to believe this whole thing could start there."
Tali worked her omnitool's interface, suddenly energized. "It's got the most rabid and obsessive fans. The share every bit of news they can find about the fleet..." An archive of the the Fleet and Flotilla board had been included in the extranet dump. The landing page was jammed with notifications. Just scanning through the message titles made her heart race:
NOTICE: Due to increased traffic,
holo posting has been disabled.
Admiralty Board sanctioned for engaging secret talks!
Poll: your favorite pick for Admiralty Board slot.
Conclave to vote on negotiations! Post your views here: peace with, or pieces of geth?
She opened that last thread and scanned the first message:
"It's official! The Admiral's order that negotiations with the geth be remained sealed for 'fleet security' was overturned by an overwhelming vote in the Conclave! Vid can be seen here. Starting at 3:20, Han'Gerrel vas Head-up-his-ass blows a seal over what he calls 'treasonous acts!' LOL!"
Tali barely paid attention to the conversations still occurring around her. No nervestim program could match the shiver that rippled through her body. The Admiralty Board's secret was finally out.
"I've seen a few episodes," Garrus said. "It's got broader reach than you'd think, the target audience non-withstanding." He found himself on the receiving end of several looks of disdain and disbelief. He rolled his eyes. "Oh, like none of you have watched it."
Jacob held up his hands. "Not me, man."
"Never," Mordin said.
"Vids are a waste," Miranda did not look up from her datapad. "Especially that one."
Shepard gave Garrus a wry grin. Garrus had so few weaknesses that could be exploited. This would definitely come in handy at some point, but he was patient. "Let's see the message, EDI."
The holo display shimmered and alien hieroglyphs danced across the screen. "What's that?" Miranda asked.
"That's quarian fleet standard," Tali said, looking up from her omnitool. She could hardly contain her excitement. "Adopted so ships from different countries could communicate easily after fleeing Rannoch. True fans of the show always use it whether they are quarian or not." She looked directly at Garrus. "I understand even some turians can read it."
Garrus stared back at her. "Now you decide to wake up. Welcome to the conversation. For the record, I've only seen a couple of episodes. I heard it had good music."
Jacob patted Garrus on the back. "Hey, if there's anything shows like that teach us, it's not to succumb to peer pressure. Watch what you want, princess!"
A welcome round of laughter filled the room. Garrus kept quiet. He knew the value of a strategic withdrawal. His time would come.
"How about something a little more legible?" Shepard asked.
"I apologize," EDI said. "A specific translation was not specified with the request."
Shepard rubbed his burning eyes. "Just pipe it through to us individually."
Around the table, eyes lowered to their respective omnitools. Tali accepted the link as well, curious to see who broke the story. When she got back to the fleet, whoever did it was in for a giant hug.
Miranda read aloud. "Human 'harrivar-nedah' bringing geth truce. Monitor one-two-one-one-point-three. Encryption key attached. Harrivar...?"
Tali shook her head at the butchered pronunciation. "Hari'var-neda. It's a ship follows, but is not part of, the fleet. A guest of the Flotilla. The SSV Shenyang."
"She get that right, Garrus?" Jacob asked with a mostly straight face.
Mordin sat up with his hands interlaced in front of him, eyes wide with anticipation. "Yes, would appreciate translation from a true fan!"
Garrus clenched his jaw, his mandibles flaring. "I like the music."
Even though Shepard enjoyed the brief moment of levity, they had more pressing matters to discuss. "Alright, let's stay focused. EDI, am I understanding this correctly? Somebody posted the Alliance encryption key on a bulletin board?"
"No," EDI said. "The encryption key enclosed was for encoded quarian transmissions within the fleet. Fans on the message board members rapidly confirmed its validity and began posting high-level communiques between the Admiralty's staff and communications personnel aboard the SSV Shenyang. This resulted in the exposure of the negotiations to the quarian general population."
"How long it take before that was noticed?" Miranda asked.
"The Shenyang was on station with the Migrant Fleet for seven days before the posting appeared," EDI said. "According to the message board, transmissions were monitored for eleven hours, thirty-one minutes before quarian COMSEC changed the key."
Shepard whistled. "Almost twelve hours. And they probably didn't find out until the news organizations picked it up and broke the story... to them and everyone else in the galaxy."
The central display changed to a linear time display. EDI explained, "Yes, but a direct link to the geth collective did not become public until after a more severe security breach. I have analyzed the entire message board and have established a timeline. Approximately forty-six minutes after the quarian key was posted, another member deduced that the Shenyang was acting as a proxy for the geth."
Legion's vocoder buzzed and his actuators clicked. "We did not trust creators with geth transmission protocols. Alliance mediators were only organics in possession outside of the Normandy collective."
"I know, Legion," Shepard said. "That was the plan. The quarians would have no direct contact to keep this exact scenario from happening. EDI, was the Shenyang compromised somehow?"
The graph in the room changed to a time-versus-volume display. "Indirectly," EDI said. "Once the Shenyang became the focus of the fanbase, traffic on the message board increased over twenty-thousand times, with logins from domains across the galaxy. Quarian civilians in ships surrounding the Shenyang began monitoring and recording all emissions from the human ship and sharing the results online, so that anyone, anywhere could assist in their decryption."
"Distributed processing," Mordin said. "Highly effective."
Shepard shook his head. "Never underestimate the power of geeks with too much time on their hands."
A point of light skimmed along the holographic chart as EDI narrated. "Approximately nine hours after the quarian key was posted, hackers responded with Systems Alliance encryption algorithms extracted from an unrelated Alliance Navy server compromised two weeks earlier. This, along with the posted emission data from the Shenyang propagated to approximately three hundred thousand mirrors within thirty minutes. Within an hour, the data was available on millions of sites throughout the galaxy. Note that these are unsubstantiated claims made by various personalities on the message board, but are technologically and socially feasible."
The pointer approached a massive incline on the linear graph. "Five hours, three minutes after the quarian network was breached, students from the Aegohr Institute of Technology posted instructions on how to penetrate the geth network along with the first raw data captured from a live geth node as proof. This message was repeated over 1.4 billion times in the available dataset. Accompanying data suggests this was the largest single spike in extranet traffic since the Battle of the Citadel. It is likely the geth network was overwhelmed at this point."
The room fell silent and all eyes turned to the geth sitting at the table. Tali tried to imagine what was going through Legion's collective mind. Every organic government and all of their citizens feared and hated the geth. Anyone with access to a terminal had a weapon at their fingertips, though she couldn't imagine the most talented organics being able to best the geth at their own game. But with sheer numbers working against them, the geth simply could not stem the tide. Postings on the boards from all sources became more and more hostile.
- New nodes found! Address list
attached. DDOS all these bitches!
- NEW VERSION! of EdensRevenge mutator on torrents! Now with GUI and executable for rapid customization and deployment.
= Payback's a bitch, ain't it you metal motherfuckers!
== Thought we snuffed most of 'em all out years ago. How many can be left? Kill 'em all!
- Nodes dropping like mad. Attican Traverse to Exodus. They're everywhere! They've been watching us the whole time!
- My brother says his outfit's gone on alert... Not joking. He says we should disconnect everything from the net right now.
= Just got word they're shutting down all network access, planetwide, in ten minutes
== Maybe this wasn't such a good idea. :/
All because the geth wanted to make peace. Would they even be interested now, Tali wondered? Assuming they are still around...
"Shepard-Commander," Legion looked at the human. "We must return to Sahrabarik as soon as possible."
Shepard looked up from his own omnitool, his expression dire, his voice unconvincingly calm. "We're working on it, buddy."
Legion stood. "We request permission to return to repair duties."
"Yeah," Shepard pointed to both Tali and Legion. "Good idea. You two, go. Grab anybody you need to help."
Mordin, Jacob and Garrus each pointed to themselves or raised a hand.
Shepard nodded and waved them out as well. "Get to work. Tali's in charge. Don't give her any shit." He leaned forward after they left, his hands clasped together, his forehead on his knuckles.
Miranda waited patiently for him to give instructions, but the only sound he made was a heavy sigh. It was probably the first time in thirty hours that he had closed his eyes for any length of time. She looked up at the last of EDI's graphs that still hovered over the table. The exponential flow of data in such a short period of time was astounding, but now she finally understood why Shepard wished to keep the negotiations secret.