Minutes before Admiral Xen made her appearance in the Conclave chamber, Ton'Parrar grinned behind his mask as he watched the Normandy delegation speak before the High Officers. Being an armed marine, he wasn't allowed inside, so he had to settle for a holo projection on the wall of a neighboring antechamber. "Man, I can't wait to see the look on the toaster's faces when we throw the switch."
"Geth don't have faces, stupid," one of the squad shook her head at her squad leader.
"You know what I mean," Parrar looked over his shoulder. Ten other marines stood ready in the antechamber, in front of a group scientists obsessing over their omnitools. His eyes focused on the most important person in the room. "So ma'am, they gonna remember what happened to them, or does all that go away when we take over?"
At first, Daro'Xen didn't look up from her omnitool, enthralled by the sheer elegance of the code on display. But it was a valid question and deserved an answer. "The geth will retain all of their memories, but it will have no meaning for them. The only understanding they will have is that their purpose is to serve."
"I don't see why we don't just wipe them," Parrar said. "Let 'em drop where they stand." The other marines in the squad respectfully added their agreement.
Xen shook her head. "Because we need them. Now more than ever."
Xen checked the status of the various teams working to decipher the geth code, and satisfied with their progress stopped to address the soldiers. It was an argument that she was going to have to make to all of the quarian people at some point. While some in the Fleet were prepared to accept the use of geth in their daily life, the majority would rest easier if all of their mechanical servants were eliminated altogether. "There are seventeen million of us left, Lieutenant. That's all. Think about that. Combined, we have the population of a medium sized city. After we take back our home, after a thousand years, we might reach one hundred million. But will we survive a thousand years?"
She looked about. "Or a hundred, or even decade? Spread out across an entire planet? Out there, wedged between the Attican Traverse and the Terminus Systems, how long do you think we'll hold onto the homeworld and our former colonies before someone comes to take them from us again? Who's to say the batarians wouldn't like to double their holdings? Or the krogan, perhaps? Do you imagine the Citadel will rush to honor our historical claim, sending their fleets to protect us? Or will they take it for themselves and end this embarrassing chapter in their history once and for all? It won't take much to push us out of the way, to silence us forever. The strong prey on the weak. And we are so very, very weak."
Xen glanced back to her omnitool, not because of anything on its display, but so the soldiers wouldn't see the shame in her eyes. "We will be at the mercy of a galaxy that doesn't know the meaning of the word. We need the geth, to help us rebuild, to bolster our defenses, to annihilate anyone who might think of attacking while we are weak. We must have them under our control so we don't merely survive, but thrive once again. Our future depends on it. Are we clear, marines?"
"Aye, Admiral!" came the shouted response.
"Good. Lieutenant Parrar, are you clear on your objectives?"
"Ma'am," the marine stood at attention. "When Admiral's party assumes control of the geth platforms, my people are to make sure nothing stands in the way of their safe delivery to the shuttle."
"Very good," Xen said. She noticed the marine still stood at attention. Her veins flowed with so many antitoxins and anesthetics she could barely feel her own suit against her skin. She shifted her weight allowing the prosthetic on her left hip to push deep through her muscles and press into the stump of bone. The stabbing pain helped keep the fogginess in her mind at bay. She couldn't afford a mental lapse now, or to show any signs of her failing health. "Is there anything else?"
"No, Admiral," Parrar said. "Well, it's just... We just wanted you to know we're lucky to be under your command again, ma'am. The whole Fleet is, whether they know it or not. We wanted you to know that."
"Thank you, Parrar," Xen smiled. "All of you. What we are doing won't be looked kindly upon by everyone in the Fleet. Some may find it morally distasteful. But there is no other way if the quarian people are to endure. What we do today will ensure that there's a tomorrow. I look forward to seeing all of you on the homeworld. As you were."
As the marines went back to watching the live feed from the Conclave Chamber, Xen let her eyes fall back to her omni, but yet again she didn't bother reading the screen. What she told the marine wasn't likely, at least not for her. She would not live to see anyone's face on the homeworld, not even her own.
Xen lay for hours, unconscious, in the wreckage of one of the Rayya's docking bays after the explosion. Her suit shredded, her leg smashed to a pulp, contaminants coursed through her body with every pump of her heart. By the time rescuers found her, it was already too late. Sepsis had taken hold. They were able to patch her wounds, but the tissue damage and contamination in her left leg was so severe they had to take it. Eventually infection would consume her entirely. Only a long stint in a sterile recovery bubble could save her life. The Moreh's chief surgeon warned her that she might only last another cycle or two without intense antiseptic/analgesic therapy, but there was no time for that now. As the sole surviving member of the Admiralty Board, her survival meant nothing next to the Fleet's.
While the rest of the Admiralty was killed along with thousands of others, Xen had been spared by blind luck. There were almost no survivors in the primary hull forward of the docking bay. Rescue techs from the picket vessel Dehnudanna were the first to breach Rayya's aft section and engine compartments where they found Xen in the wreckage. They evacuated her anonymously with hundreds of other casualties. Clan Ondra of Dehnudanna were amongst the oldest allies of clan Xen and fearing the Admiralty Board had been the target of the attack, they surreptitiously transferred Xen and her surviving escorts to the Moreh for treatment. Word of her survival would not get out until the culprits and their motives were identified.
Transmissions from the Xantas indicated one of Xen's hand-picked marine escorts assassinated the human ambassador, then tried to jump the shuttle away to cover her deeds. But Xen knew better. Once the geth were under control of their rightful masters, she would make sure those responsible would suffer in the time she had left. If she lived only as long as to see that, she would die happy.
Her environment suit detected a rise in her pulse and temperature and it fired off a mild sedative and her head drooped. She thought she'd overridden all of the doctor's medical routines, but apparently he slipped one by.
"Admiral," Parrar said, "They're wrapping up. Sounds like they're going to call for a vote."
Xen snapped upright. "Alright, listen up. The Conclave will be dispersing so they can consult with their crews. If they follow procedure, we will have four hours. Our spotters will tell us which reception chamber the geth will be sent to wait and you will take control of the adjacent compartments. We'll need to be within the geth's near-field receptors for our exploit to work. Once the geth are under our control, you get the platforms to the shuttle for delivery to the injection point. Understood?"
"Yes ma'am," replied the marines.
"The rest of you keep working," Xen told her technicians. She opened the comm on her omni to call Rundan for an update. If the geth transmission protocols could be broken, the thousands of software engineers throughout the fleet could adapt the virus to the new code.
"Ma'am," Parrar said and stepped into Xen's field of view, his voice and expression urgent. "The Conclave is not dispersing before the vote."
Xen blinked. "What?"
Parrar held up his omni for Xen to see herself. "They're going to hold the vote now."
"Damn them to hell," Xen slammed her hand against a bulkhead. The marines and techs all started to talk at once, until Xen ordered them silent so she could think.
"What are your orders, Admiral?"
Xen activated her comm. "Rundan, have you broken the encryption yet?"
"Not yet, Admiral. We're close. The platform in the Conclave chamber has ceased transmission, though. It seems to be in a wait state."
The marines in the antechamber all stared at their leader, waiting for an order. If the Conclave doesn't disperse, Xen thought, it's over. The science teams still needed time to break the geth encryption and recode the virus. With the vote happening now, the geth might not go to the reception area where the acquisition teams would be in close enough proximity to force a connection with the geth. Or worse, the geth platforms might return directly to the Normandy. What could they do, Xen wondered? Storm the Conclave and remove the geth by force? Shepard and his crew had no weapons, but would the Conclave make a move to stop them?
Xen stripped off her combat webbing and handed her sidearm over to Parrar. "I'm going out there." The soldiers, in unison, hefted and charged their weapons. "No," Xen said. "Alone. Wait here."
"Did I hear you correctly, Admiral?" Rundan sounded scared. "Commander Shepard is out there, and he knows we were responsible for-"
"He's the one who needs to worry," Xen relished the sensation of adrenaline in her blood. She might not live to see her people retake Rannoch, but she would at least get to see the geth bow once again to their masters.
"The Conclave doesn't know you're alive. There's been talk of charging you posthumously for treason! If you go out there, they'll arrest you!"
Xen smoothed out her cowl and straightened in her suit. She was sick to her stomach from her meds and had to will herself not to vomit. "Let them. All I need to do is keep them out there long enough for you to complete your task. I don't need to remind you that the future of our entire species depends on what happens in the next few minutes."
"No, ma'am," Rundan said. There was a pregnant pause as he tried to figure out what else he could say. "Good luck, Admiral."
Daro'Xen staggered across the floor of the Conclave chamber at a measured pace, listening to the last reverberation of her voice echo over the PA system. Overriding the Conclave's pitiful security had never been difficult for her, but it never actually seemed useful to do so until today.
"Admiral on deck!" Captain Fasha stood rigidly at attention from her chair at the sight of Xen, and the half of the High Officers followed, as did an equal proportion of the Conclave. The remainder, including High Captain Wylo remained in his seat.
Xen walked unflinchingly toward the Normandy crew. While Tali'Zorah gawked at the sight of her, Commander Shepard puffed his chest out in a human threat display and placed himself directly between her and the geth platforms. If she was lucky, Shepard might attack her in front of the entire Conclave. That would be the only excuse she'd need for her marines to come in.
But Shepard didn't oblige her. He only crossed his arms in front of him. "Back from the dead, huh?"
"Yes, are you impressed?" Xen smiled, her tone as relaxed as if talking to a treasured friend. "I didn't even have to rely on terrorists to do it."
Shepard smiled back with pure malice in his eyes. "Think you'll be able to do it again?"
"Oh, Commander," Xen laughed. "I could ask the same question of you. After all, no one lives forever."
"You better believe it."
Xen locked eyes with the human. "Are you threatening me, Commander?"
"Daro'Xen," Wylo called out. "You will address the High Officers of the Conclave."
"Excuse me, Commander," Xen walked around the glaring human toward the High Captain's chair. She paused at the sight of two geth platforms nearby, eyes aglow. "Magnificent."
"Daro'Xen," Wylo said, still sitting in his chair. "You will stand before me at attention."
"My dear Kenna," Xen used his first name, as Wylo neither stood nor addressed her rank. "I realize the Conclave wasn't prepared for a visit from the Admiralty Board today, and given the confusion in our current crisis I can forgive your lack of courtesy. But an Admiral of the Board is addressing you now. You will show appropriate respect."
Wylo remained in his seat. His voice was calm and measured. "Captain Lassar, summon the Master at Arms. Admiral Xen is to be placed under arrest."
A quarian to Wylo's right stood and made his way to the edge of the stage.
"Belay that, Lassar," Xen barked. "Arrest the sole surviving member of the Admiralty Board? In time of war? I think not. You are overstepping authority, High Captain. This is a purely military affair."
"No, Admiral," Wylo said. "The Admiralty Board was declared dead and struck from the rosters. The bodies of Admirals Raan, Koris, and Gerrel were located by their suit transponders and recovered from Rayya. Given that your transponder was never logged by any rescue personnel, we can only assume that you were deliberately avoiding detection, and therefore attempting to deceive the Conclave once again."
"My suit took considerable damage during the disaster. I'm lucky to be here at all."
"You were listed as dead by the captain of the Moreh."
"A unfortunate oversight," Xen said, looking down at her artificial leg. "There was so much confusion during the rescue efforts, dealing with so many casualties. Though I survived, I was incapacitated for quite some time."
"You should have contacted us."
"I decided to announce the fortunate news of my recovery in person."
Wylo looked unimpressed. "Then you are fit to stand trial on the charge of treason."
"Based on what, exactly?"
"Lying to the Conclave and the High Officers. Conspiring to fix the appointment of a replacement for Admiral Rael'Zorah. For your actions surrounding Dashta Interchange Station, resulting in the death of Captain Alix'Carn vas Giraf, and the attempted sabotage of negotiations with the geth. Shall I go on?"
Xen shrugged and held her arms wide. "I stand ready to receive the judgement of the Conclave and all quarians of the Fleet as soon as this crisis is over. But until then, your authority over me as an Admiral in a time of war is non-existent."
"Your manipulations and machinations are well known, Daro," Wylo said. He looked out at the faces of the Conclave. "But they won't help you now. The war is over. Or it soon will be."
"Our war has just started!" Xen turned about to the captains of the Conclave. "Bodies are still being pulled from the wreck of the Rayya, and the High Captain invites the perpetrators to stand before the Conclave? This is madness!"
The entire chamber broke into confused shouts. Shepard couldn't take it any more. He stomped over to where Xen stood in front of Wylo. Tali hurried after him, and almost tripped as she scrambled in front of him to face Wylo. If Shepard attacked Xen there would be pandemonium.
"High Captain," Tali said, "I request that you remove Xen immediately from the chamber. She's obviously motivated by strong opinions of the geth and the negotiations and will say or do anything to stop them."
"Tali'Zorah," Xen shook her head. "Your father would be devastated if he saw you now. How can you stand with enemies of the Fleet?"
At the mention of her father's name, Tali turned on Xen. "The geth did not attack the Rayya!"
"I know," Xen growled. "Shall I show you who did?" Her voice strained with rage as she commandeered the overhead holo screens with her omnitool. A video feed of a lively corridor appeared, bustling with hundreds of quarians going about their work from the perspective of someone navigating their way through the crowd. Xen muted the audio feed. "Taken aboard the Rayya, mere minutes before the barbaric act which threatened every living soul in this fleet."
The video feed shifted to the human members of the peace delegation being searched before boarding the shuttle Xantas. The quarian searching the wearer of the camera obviously saw it, but made no attempt to remove it.
On the screen, the person wearing the camera took his seat in the shuttle. Xen froze the image. "This footage came from a transmitter I had implanted in Ambassador Castillo's environment suit, so we could keep tabs on our visitors while they were aboard our ships. Captan Kar'Danna, may he rest in peace, and his security personnel cooperated without objection. Captain Kar'Danna voiced his reservations about allowing aliens aboard the Rayya the first time a Cerberus ship was allowed to dock when Tali'Zorah vas Normandy," Xen emphasized the name of the human ship, "was tried for treason. If only his warnings had been heeded by this body, his chair might not be vacant today."
Xen pressed play. "What you are about to see are the last moments of Ambassador Castillo's life, and who was truly responsible for the destruction of the Rayya."
On the video screen, the Conclave watched in horror as the human reporter Eric Dahlberg disarmed and killed the Ambassador's quarian escort, then executed his human counterparts without a trace of hesitation or remorse. The camera kept recording after Castillo's body fell to the deck.
"What's going on back there?" asked the shuttle pilot over the intercom. "Foya! Dannis!"
"Foya's gone crazy!" the human shouted. "She shot the Ambassador and Firaz! Call for help! Call for help right now!"
Dahlberg disappeared from the camera's view behind a massive food container as the shuttle pilot made the frantic distress call. A strangled gasp filled the audio feed and the camera stirred on the floor. The human reappeared and lifted Castillo to his feet and dragged him to the aft ramp. "Fassa! Open the door! I've got to get help for the Ambassador!"
Warning lights flared to life around the aft hatch. A platoon of Rayya's marines were about to come aboard. Dahlberg dropped the Ambassador and the camera view went dark as it faced the floor. Then, slowly, the view rose a few centimeters as the Ambassador regained consciousness. Slowly, painfully, Castillo dragged himself across the deck toward Dahlberg. His breath was loud and labored and choked with blood. Castillo stopped upon seeing the reporter huddled over an open instrument panel. "Eric, whatever you're doing, please stop... Please stop, Eric..."
Dahlberg closed his eyes, then smiled. When they opened again, it looked as though he were staring directly into the Conclave from the giant screen. "If it's any comfort, you're dying a hero."
The human twisted a knob, the feed went dark, and thirteen thousand quarians died. Xen ran it back to it's final frame, to that of the smiling human with his hand on the trigger. "It wasn't any mutiny," she told the silent audience. "It wasn't separatists trying to disrupt negotiations. It wasn't xenophobic soldiers taking matters into their own hands, or any of the other ridiculous theories being bandied about." She flung her hand toward the only human on the stage. "It was Cerberus!"
Back in the Moreh's comm center, Fassnol'Rundan gripped the armrests of his chair as the streams of encoded geth data turned from blocks of gibberish to streams of code. Hundreds, if not thousands of separate instruction pipelines were now visible, with more being isolated every second.
"Are you seeing this?" his junior tech asked from his chair.
"Every bit of it," Rundan answered. "Whatever the Admiral said, it sure got the geth talking again. This is going out to all stations, right? Have them concentrate on comparisons to the previous code base. Specifically anything referencing consensus and root commands."
Rundan sat back in his chair with his hands clasped in front of his mask. The more the geth platform communicated with the collective, the faster their code could be analyzed. All Admiral Xen needed to do was to keep talking...
Shepard stared at the screen overhead next to Tali, who also seemed too shocked to say anything. Xen shook her head at the lack of response from the Normandy crew and began to pace, exaggerating her limp. "The humans sent an Ambassador mediate with the geth. The geth, we were told, insisted upon it. Yet it was neither the Alliance nor the Geth that proposed these peace talks. No. The idea was the brainchild of Commander Shepard of the Normandy, the flagship of the Illusive Man himself. The same man who stands here now, insisting that we trust him!"
Low mumbles filled the room as Xen continued to circle Shepard. "And somehow, coincidentally, a human saboteur found his way on board the Rayya, accompanying the very diplomat meant to deliver peace. Instead..." Xen shifted the video feed once more, showing the bow of the Rayya exploding in a geyser of fire. Xen let it repeat as she turned to face the human. "They brought this. So tell me, Commander Shepard. What was the purpose of this attack? To assassinate the Admiralty Board? To destroy our largest liveship and coerce our people through starvation? To force us to accept peace with the geth? Or was it something more personal, because you blame me for what happened to your crew at Dashta?"
Shepard didn't reply, concentrating on his own omnitool as he sent a text message back to the Normandy. His fingers shook but he managed to send the message. He looked up, standing in the center of a ring of the top quarian commanders, surrounded by thousands of other captains of quarian ships. His first instinct was to demand evidence. Nothing in Xen's video feed specifically implicated Cerberus as the perpetrator. Given its source, it was just as likely that it had been fabricated by Daro'Xen to discredit the peace efforts or deflect attention away from Dashta.
But ever since the Normandy returned from beyond the Omega Four relay, the Illusive Man pushed Shepard toward the Migrant Fleet. War with the geth was imminent, he said. The galaxy feared the geth and feared invasion, he said. Get Legion and the geth to the Migrant Fleet any way possible, do what was necessary to facilitate peace between the geth and their creators, and humanity would reap the rewards. Had it been a ruse from the start, to place Cerberus assets in the Migrant Fleet? If so, what was the point of eliminating the quarian command structure, not to mention crippling their food production? At what point did killing over ten thousand people and sentencing millions of others to death by starvation benefit humanity?
Shepard looked back at his omnitool. Miranda had been monitoring the situation the entire time, and his message still shown unanswered on the screen. Could Cerberus have done this? Names of places and deeds flashed through Shepard's mind: Akuze. Pragia. Noveria. Binthu, Aite. All rogue operatives, splinter cells that had broken from the Illusive Man's control, operating on their own authority without regard to acceptable human conduct. Was Raheel-Leyya going to be dismissed as just another example of renegade Cerberus agents going too far? Would the Illusive Man, the one person who made counterattack against the collectors and the reapers possible, sacrifice an entire alien species if meant advancement for humanity?
Miranda's response was as damning as it was terse: Yes.
Shepard glanced around at thousands of eyes glowing behind the opaque face masks that surrounded them. The one that he should have looked to first was the only one he could not face. Tali stood frozen as he was, pondering the same questions. His reply to Miranda was almost as blunt as the Cerberus operative's response. Find out. And then, he tried to come up with an answer that would satisfy not only the Conclave, but a woman who had warned him about working with Cerberus from the start. Somehow he knew "I don't work for Cerberus, they work for me" wasn't going to satisfy anyone now.
"Creator-Admiral," Mobile Platform Two moved toward the organics standing before Captain Wylo's chair. "You are in error. Shepard-Commander is not responsible for the attack on the liveship Rayya."
Xen turned to face the advancing geth platform, her omnitool still pulsing with light on her arm. The geth's lines and blue color were unlike any platform she had seen before. "Well by all means," Xen said, a smile spreading beneath her mask. "If you have evidence to the contrary... I'm all ears."