Shepard held his breath. What could the geth possibly say that would change quarian opinion? Would they even believe it, considering the source?
The blue geth's flaps expanded and contracted as it spoke. "While it is true that the Normandy was designed and built by Cerberus, Shepard-Commander is not a member of the organization, nor does adhere to its tenants."
"I see," Daro'Xen stared into Platform Two's camera with fascination as it spoke. She'd seen many vids of Tali'Zorah's famous talking geth, most sent by Tali herself after Commander Shepard adopted Legion into his crew. In fact, Shepard would be quite shocked to learn just how much information his beloved engineer sent to her father before his death, before whatever change of heart convinced the quarian that the geth were no longer a threat. Had Tali not switched sides, she could have easily assumed her father's position in the lab, and possibly surpassed him, but she chose a different path.
It didn't matter. Nor did it matter what the geth had to say about Commander Shepard's innocence as long as they kept accessing their network for information. Neither Tali nor Shepard realized the service they done by delivering upgraded geth to the fleet. Maybe after the geth were under quarian control, she would let them know personally.
Xen nodded. "So Cerberus brought a man back from the dead and gave him one of the most advanced ships ever created, both at a considerable cost I'd wager, for what reason? Because they liked him? Because they missed him?"
Scattered laughter echoed throughout the chamber.
Platform Two stayed focused on Xen. "Because they needed him."
"They needed him. For what?"
"To protect the human species."
The Conclave grumbled en masse. Xen smiled. "Yes, Cerberus is known throughout the galaxy for that particular agenda, aren't they? But I fail to understand how this clears Commander of culpability in the attack on the Rayya."
"We sought Shepard-Commander for the same purpose."
"What, to attack the Rayya?"
Platform Two's head flaps widened. "To preserve the geth collective."
Legion stepped directly in front of Xen, the lights around its head glowing red. "Kinesic evaluation indicates the the Creator-Admiral is disinterested in this information. We judge that the Creator-Admiral is deliberately attempting to incite discord amongst the Creator Conclave with this line of questioning."
Xen blinked with surprise. If it wouldn't have given support to Commander Shepard, she would have admitted to the machine that she was impressed at the accuracy of its assessment.
"No matter," Captain Wylo said from above them. "We're the ones who need to hear this information, not her. Admiral Xen, until your status is re-confirmed by this body, you will refrain from further commentary. Platform Two, please continue."
Blue turned toward the High Officers to present its case, leaving Xen with Legion. The Normandy's geth remained focused solely on the Admiral.
"That was very rude of you, Legion," Xen said as if speaking to an unruly teenager. Any other quarian would probably have recoiled from the geth with its glowing red eyes. It was a holdover from their days as servants, designed to provide a visual cue that the unit was performing duties that might injure nearby quarians. Was the geth attempting to intimidate her now? She quivered in anticipation of seeing it and its blue companion disassembled, their programs and memories decompiled for all quarians to examine.
She glanced at Shepard. He didn't look back, concentrating on the geth platform in front of her, eyes wide with fear. Is the geth going to attack, she wondered? How fortunate that would be if one of the geth units attempted to kill her in front of the entire Conclave. It would be far more damning than if Shepard tried it, and her soldiers would have an instant excuse to storm the stage and seize both geth platforms. But she wasn't that lucky.
"Legion," Shepard said.
The geth looked at Shepard, then back at Xen, its lights casting her helmet in a blood red glow. Its flaps undulated once, then it moved to stand next to Shepard and Tali, its eye turning back to its normal blue-white hue. The relief visible behind both Shepard's and Tali's masks was evident.
"Remarkable," Xen whispered to herself.
Captain Mirron was now addressing the blue geth. "Cerberus is only interested in protecting humans. You are implying that Shepard would protect you. How so?"
Platform Two relayed the information as requested. "A splinter faction of geth sought to join with Nazara, the old machine designated 'Sovereign' by organics, with the ultimate intention of reprogramming all geth to serve Nazara. Shepard-Commander, aided by Creator-Tali'Zorah and other members of the Normandy collective, destroyed Nazara at the battle of the Citadel."
"Old machine?" Wylo asked, confused. "What's that?" He paged through Ambassador Castillo's report on his omnitool, searching for some reference to Nazara.
"The heretic dreadnought that attacked the Citadel," Mirron said. "The so-called 'reaper...'"
Shepard sighed in his suit at the captain's tone, but didn't say anything. Now wasn't the place or time.
"Shepard destroyed it, so you wanted to find him because he destroyed your enemy?"
"Yes," Blue said. "Though at the time, Shepard-Commander was not aware of the difference between heretics and true geth. Given his proclivity for destroying geth, direct contact presented a great risk."
Mirron looked thoughtful. "Because you didn't know if he would destroy you, too?"
"Correct. In order to gauge the threat, we studied Shepard-Commander's behavior at length, and discovered a pattern. When confronted by hostility, Shepard-Commander always attempted to identify the source of the conflict and seek a peaceful resolution, resorting to violence only as a last resort. Alliance personality assessments and psychological profiles also suggested Shepard-Commander responded to unknown situations with curiosity and caution, but never fear. As such, we judged him to be an ideal candidate for first contact. However, Shepard-Commander disappeared before Platform One was able to locate him."
Platform Two turned its camera on the human. "When contact with Shepard-Commander was re-established, it was after he was given command of a Cerberus ship. This did not correlate with Shepard-Commander's personal history. He and the Normandy collective were responsible for the destruction of five Cerberus installations and the deaths one-hundred and forty-six Cerberus operatives prior to his disappearance. For Shepard-Commander to be allied with Cerberus was not logical. However, Shepard-Commander's behavior since has been one-hundred percent consistent with established behavioral patterns, indicating that Shepard-Commander is not subservient to Cerberus, but is instead utilizing their resources to complete his mission."
Wylo cocked his head. "To fight the reapers."
"That's right," Shepard said, much to the Conclave's displeasure, but he didn't care. After all the progress with the Citadel, he didn't feel the need to skirt the issue any more. Maybe it's about time the quarians got to read Mordin's report, too.
"If the Creator-Conclave is skeptical about the threat of the old machines," Blue said, "there are many other examples available. For instance, Shepard-Commander risked his own life and that of his crew during the recovery of quarian research vessel Alarei from hostile geth forces, and engaged in subsequent defense of Creator-Tali'Zorah for treason."
"We remember," Wylo said, fixing Daro'Xen with a hard stare. From the sound of the rest of the Conclave, they remembered as well. "A tragic and needless waste of lives to be sure."
Xen shifted her weight to her good leg as she addressed the High Captain. She'd had about as much of the geth's hero worship as she could take, yet the High Officers seemed to be lapping it up. "Tragic, yes, Wylo. But a waste? You spit on the memories of Rael'Zorah and the thousands of our people who died serving this fleet! Rael died protecting our future! A future that doesn't require that we demean ourselves-"
"Admiral Xen," Wylo warned.
"-by voluntarily placing our species beneath machines!" Xen pointed to the pair of on the stage, "Making ourselves subservient, allowing outsiders to force their wills on us, devaluing ourselves to the point where our flesh and blood matters less than a few credits worth of plastic and cable!"
By this time the entire Conclave was on its feet, some shouting in support of the former Admiral, the rest against.
"Order!" Wylo yelled over the PA once more. "One more outburst, Xen, and I'll have you forcibly removed!"
That got an even angrier response from Xen's supporters in the crowd, and she pivoted around as if basking in sunlight before turning back to Wylo. "Shall we put that to a vote, High Captain?"
Wylo scanned the auditorium. Never before had he seen the captains so divided. But he was beginning to think the Legion had been correct in its earlier claim that Xen was intentionally stirring up trouble amongst the Conclave. "By law," he no longer shouted, but his voice still rang out over the PA. "Not even a sitting admiral may dictate the proceedings of the Conclave. Or have you all forgotten where we are, and who we are? If anyone is trying to force their will here, Xen, it's you! And we will not tolerate it!"
The subtle appeal to unity, the use of we instead of I in Wylo's appeal had the desired effect. The captains of the conclave slowly returned to their seats. "Now," Wylo continued. "Daro'Xen. You are welcome to observe these proceedings, but if you refuse to observe proper decorum, I will have you removed."
Xen stared at Wylo in silence. But what no one could see was that she was not actually looking at the quarian, but through him. She barely even heard him over Rundan's voice from the Moreh: "Re-compilation complete, Admiral. Sending you the updated executable. Ready to cut the feed at your command."
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then said the word that could change the future of the quarians for centuries to come. "Execute." And then aloud, over her suit speakers, her voice full of sincere contrition. "Of course, High Captain. My apologies. The past two cycles have put a strain on all of us. Ashamed as I am to admit, it has taken its toll on me as well."
"Apology accepted," Wylo said.
The blue geth buzzed loudly. "Unable to negotiate handshake. Carrier lost."
Simultaneously, around the Conclave Chamber, thousands of quarians looked at their blank omnitools and HUDs with groans of dismay as a similar message displayed on their screens. No signal.
Shepard's heart skip a beat. He looked around at Tali, as close to a panic as he would allow himself. But instead of surprise, his quarian engineer only looked her own omnitool with dismay, and when she did look at him, her eyes will full of apology. "Oh, of all the times, not now!"
"What's going on?" Shepard said over the squad tactical net. "Garrus, do you read?"
"They can't hear you," Tali shook her head. "Comm failure. The network is overloaded. Radio transmissions can't penetrate the hull and shielding, so everything has been going over the ship's network. Whenever the entire conclave is here, and with the entire fleet watching... sometimes the system overloads."
Shepard kept looking around at the quarians in the stands, all reduced to talking to their neighbors now instead of messaging one another. No one seemed to be in a panic, though. "Aren't there backups?"
Xen shook her head as she stood next to Tali. She did her best to convey annoyance, but her feed had not gone dead. In fact, Xen's was the only fully-functional omnitool in the chamber at the moment, as it was connected to a private network reserved for the Admiralty Board. "That probably was their backup. Unfortunately, not everything works as well as it should here, Commander."
"The last time this happened it was the cooling system," Tali said, pulling up schematics of the ship on her omni. "The entire comms bay nearly melted down before they cut it off."
"It took three cycles to repair," Xen said with a laugh, "Here, I can patch you into the Board's private node. We need to route support down there as soon as possible."
Without thinking, Tali nodded to Xen. For a moment, it was like any other time she'd come with the Admiralty Board to visit the Conclave. "Thank you, Admiral." Then she remembered who she was talking to.
"May I have your attention, please," Wylo announced over the PA as the other High Officers slumped in their seats. "We're experiencing a temporary network outage. Please remain in your seats and keep your transmissions to a minimum to allow for emergency traffic until we can get an idea of how long it will take to correct. Thank you."
"I'm not showing any temperature alarms," Xen said, comparing her omnitool to Tali's. "Captain Wylo, who's running your network ops today? Darant'Masa?"
Wylo's eyes narrowed. "My engineering staff will take care of it."
"Just offering my assistance," Xen glanced at Tali. "After all, we're in the middle of a rather important discussion, and you have two of the most proficient technicians in the Fleet on board."
Wylo clenched his teeth behind his mask but remained civil. "Thank you, Admiral. We'll take that under consideration."
Legion looked about at the surrounding organics. "May we be of assistance?"
Tali winced. If they were anywhere else, she could think of no one else she'd rather have troubleshoot a network problem. But on a quarian ship? "Better let us handle this, Legion. But thank you."
"On the contrary," Xen said, pulling up her omnitool in front of the geth. "I'd be very interested in seeing what they could do to help. We can't allow direct access, of course, but it wouldn't hurt to have them take a look at our diagnostics."
Shepard kept a wary eye on Daro'Xen as he began to pace. More than anything, he wanted to twist the treacherous Admiral's neck until it snapped, but somehow he knew that would make a poor impression on the Conclave during their most important push for peace. But technical issue or not, he didn't like being out of contact with the ship, especially not with Xen around. "Garrus, this is Shepard, do you read? Garrus, this is Shepard, do you copy?"
"Relax, Commander," Xen said. "This will all be taken care of in a few minutes, I promise." Shepard ignored her, so she turned to the pair of geth platforms, a smile behind her mask. "At least this gives us a chance to get to know each other. Who knows? By the time we finish we may be the best of friends."
"A network problem?" Miranda peered at the Anba through Normandy's cockpit windows from her chair.
"That's what they're telling us," Garrus's voice sounded calm over the comm system. On the Kodiak, broadcasting from one Anba's docking bays, the turian's signal was strong and clear. "Some kind of overload. We're not able to reach anyone inside the Conclave chamber. Apparently, when you put ten thousand officers in a room together and they all want to talk at once. Their network couldn't handle it."
"Have they tried turning it off and back on again?" Joker suggested.
Miranda scowled. "What about setting up some kind of relay, or repeater for direct transmission? Just for our people?"
"Working on that now. If nothing else, I'll walk down to get in range and come back with a report. I'll knock on the door if I have to."
"Do you think your minders will let you?"
"Good question. But you know me. I'll ask nicely. How do things look out there?"
"Quiet," Miranda said. "Hearing lots of chatter about the outage from our escorts. Apparently it's not that uncommon of an event. No one seems too worried."
"Hmm. When no one else is worried, I find that's the best time to worry."
Miranda's eyes darted from the windows to her sensor displays. Nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary, which did nothing to calm her nerves. "You and me, both. Let me know what you find."
"Will do. Vakarian out."
Garrus poked his head out the Kodiak's hatch. The Normandy's squad was scattered about the empty docking bay, chatting idly with the Fleet Marines on guard with them. The quarians all seemed fascinated by their alien guests, especially Grunt who towered above all of them. Everyone seemed calm and relaxed, which put Garrus on edge even more. "Kasumi, could I see you in the shuttle for a minute?"
The thief excused herself from her quarian counterpart and strolled back to the Kodiak. Garrus was sitting in the middle of the aft bench when she stepped inside. She stopped in front of him. "Command me, oh tall, dark, and handsome one."
"Just out of curiosity, how would you rate the security on this ship?"
"Oh my," Kasumi's eyes lit up behind the facemask of her helmet as she sat next to him. "Are we plotting something devious?"
"I prefer to think of it as proactive planning. What are we up against here?"
"Well, no offense to our hosts, but I'd put them on a level somewhere between a hundred-year-old cruise ship and a convenience store on Omega."
Garrus chuckled, then peered out the window just to be sure no one was watching. "How would you like to stretch your legs a little?"
Legion and Platform Two stood on either side of Xen as she projected a display of the Anba's systems in the air in front of her. She couldn't have planned it better. In order to gain control of the platforms, she needed to be within close proximity. And here she was, omnitool out, with both geth within arm's reach.
Every geth unit had several near-field, low power transceivers that provided a variety of positional and environmental inputs to the platform. While not directly capable of sending directives to the platform as a whole, each was still controlled by an individual geth processes responsible for relaying the information to the internal platform for processing. With the right exploit, instructions could be sent through those inputs, and with the right code, affected geth processes could be directed to overwrite the code in related processes, eventually overtaking the entire platform.
Because of this method of delivery, the virus could not be spread over long ranges, and built in protocols between individual platforms automatically rejected remote commands if not dictated by consensus. But, by interfacing an infected geth directly with a hub, where billions of networked processes shared data locally, the virus would no longer result in isolated runtimes vying for control. The instruction would become consensus itself. At that point, the new consensus could spread remotely and automatically, infecting other hubs as rapidly as electromagnetic waves and mass relays could carry it.
Xen's omnitool was already primed with the new code, programmed to listen for the geth's near-field transmission and broadcast an infected response only when queried. Then, as fast as the geth's processors would allow, the individual runtimes would accept the new order, and follow instructions without question.
It was all that a creator could ask of its creation, Xen thought as the geth next to her examined her omnitool.
"Probable cause for failure," Legion shared its analysis along with Platform Two. "Thermal exchange failure in server spaces caused by inadequate coolant circulation. Atmospheric exchange unable to compensate for increased load."
"We concur," the blue geth said. "Thermal readouts indicate reduced output from primary and secondary flow systems."
Xen found it odd that the two platforms actually talked to one another, rather than utilizing a direct network connection, but was mesmerized at being included in the conversation. If she survived the next few cycles, she knew she could spend the rest of her life exploring their minds. "That's what I think as well," Xen said. "Perhaps you could accompany a team down to take a look?"
"Negative, Creator-Admiral," Platform Two said. "We are not to leave the Conclave chamber except to return to the Normandy."
"We concur," Legion said.
"I see," Xen said. Was her exploit not transmitting, or were the geth not receiving? Or worse, was the re-written code being rejected? She had to keep trying. "Well, if it's a cooling system failure, there might be thermal damage to the networking components. Have a look at these trace files and tell me what you think..."
Kasumi's voice in Shepard's ear made him jump inside his suit. He whirled around out of reflex, but the thief was nowhere in sight.
"Psyche! I'm not there this time."
"Glad to hear you anyway," Shepard said, "even though I'm just one step closer to that heart attack. Where are you?"
"One deck down, about fifty meters aft. Goodness gracious, there are a lot of people on this ship! Can you read me okay?"
"Loud and clear."
"Great! Commander Shepard, Garrus Vakarian. Garrus Vakarian, Commander Shepard. I'm your host, Kasumi Goto, and we're live on the air!"
"Shepard," Garrus said, "Is everything alright in there?"
Shepard let out a long sigh upon hearing the turian's smooth voice. "Roger, we're fine. What's your status?"
"All quiet here. No problems other than this 'network outage.' Figured it would be best to find an alternate way to get in touch with you."
"Good thinking. What about the Normandy? You been in contact with Miranda?"
"Ask her yourself. This is a party line."
"Lawson here," Miranda said, lacking Kasumi's or Garrus's informality. "Situation normal. Nothing to report."
"Okay then," Shepard said, relaxing a bit. "Maybe this is just a technical glitch after all. But Xen's in here."
"Copy, Commander," Miranda said. "We saw everything up until the outage."
"Guess it would be bad form to kill her in front of the entire Conclave, wouldn't it?" Garrus said.
"Depends on how she dies," Kasumi said. "She could accidentally walk into an invisible knife five or six times."
Shepard allowed himself a quick laugh. "I was thinking bashed to a pulp by not so invisible fists, but Garrus is right-"
"I usually am."
"-we can't deal with her until the Conclave has their vote. After that," Shepard cast a glance over at the quarian admiral standing next to the two geth, "she answers for Dashta one way or another."
As she worked with the geth, Daro'Xen cast the occasional glance toward the only human on deck. When he made eye contact, she could feel the hatred that burned within. She knew Shepard and his crew had nothing to do with the destruction of the Raaya - Shepard's self-righteousness made him too intractable to be involved - but his time with Cerberus was a valuable tool in keeping the Conclave from rushing to his side, and it had worked long enough for the teams on Moreh and other loyal ships to complete their research. The delay caused by the sabotage to Anba's communication network had bought a few more minutes at most, but even that extra time was about to run out. Xen would have to make her move soon, or the opportunity would be lost forever.
That Shepard now appeared to be talking to himself beneath his helmet meant the resourceful Commander must have found some way to communicate with his crew, just as Xen had. It was regrettable that he had chosen to side with machines rather than his fellow organics. But there was no going back now, no way to undo what had come before. What Shepard would do in retaliation for Dashta, Xen couldn't imagine. What lengths he would go to prevent her from achieving her goals with the geth were incalculable. She had to exploit the only weakness she ever knew Shepard to have.
But Xen needed control of the geth first. Without their submission, nothing else mattered. "I left some network analyzers in one of the starboard antechambers," Xen tried again. "Would you two be so kind as to go and get them for me?"
"Negative," Legion said. "As previously indicated, we are not to leave the Conclave chamber except to return to the Normandy. Creator-Admiral, your omnitool is emitting low-power transmissions in a peculiar fashion. Is it malfunctioning?"
Xen felt sweat accumulating on her forehead, and her suit fan stepped up to compensate. Each attempt to get the geth to follow simple instructions had failed. They should have picked up on the code by now, or if it was received, given some indication if only to report the intrusion. Had the geth encryption not been broken as Rundan had reported?
The blue geth's aperture widened, then narrowed. "We will retrieve them for you. Where is the antechamber located?"
Legion turned its camera eye on Platform Two.
Xen gasped, a smile on her face. "How very kind of you! But just give me a moment to check on the status of the network." She typed a message into her omnitool. "It may not be necessary after all."
Take them out, was all her message said.
In the cockpit of the human scout ship Carcassonne, Ebo Adebayo poked at the holo screen on the sensor console and stifled a yawn. Their vessel hovered close to the Raheel-Leyya relay with dozens other ships from Alliance and Citadel space, each carrying reporters or relief workers and even some curious onlookers all wanting to enter the nebulae of ships known as the Migrant Fleet. Every ship that had entered the system had been intercepted by the quarian navy and corralled into the space around the relay, under the close watch of some fifty quarian corvettes and frigate sized ships. While the quarians might be able to enforce a no-fly zone within their fleet, they couldn't keep anyone from coming into Raheel-Leyya without blockading the relay on the other side, and that was a guaranteed way to attract a Citadel or Terminus task force. The quarians didn't want that kind of trouble for a bunch of troublesome sightseers.
But the Carcassonne was no ordinary scout. It and five other Cerberus ships scattered around the relay arrived days before with the intent of retaking the Normandy. Except the rouge Cerberus ship made for the heart of the Migrant Fleet immediately upon arrival, bypassing them completely. Commander Shepard and his crew were either very lucky or very well informed. Adebayo figured it was the former, as he'd studied every single one of Shepard's mission reports in detail. If the ex-Spectre had caught wind of the double-cross, Adebayo was pretty sure Shepard wouldn't take it lying down, and the resulting fight wouldn't resemble anything like the planned one-sided ambush.
At this range, the Normandy wasn't even visible on his screen, lost in the fuzz of the signatures of tens of thousands of quarian ships in the system. It was no matter, though. If the Normandy ever planned to leave Raheel-Leyya, it would have to come to the relay to do it. Cerberus would take their prize on the way out.
Adebayo stretched in his seat and wondered how much longer he would have to stare at the same sensor readings on his console and swirling relay rings outside his cockpit window.
"Insect antenna," his pilot said, running her hand through her hair. "Six letters. Third letter 'E'."
Adebayo scowled. "Anything else to go on?"
"Nope. Just the letter E."
"What's it start with?"
The pilot paused long enough to roll her eyes. "A blank."
"Hmm," Adebayo scratched his head. "What have we got that goes across?"
"Let's see, nineteen across, five letters-"
A bright white flash outside the window made both of them flinch.
"Damn," the pilot said, immediately activating her control pads. "What was that?"
"Stand by," Adebayo said, examining his scanners. The sparkle of a debris field replaced a solid sensor track on his screen seven hundred kilometers away. "Somebody just got lit up. Directly ahead, shade under eight hundred klicks."
The pilot powered up the ship's barriers and drive core. Confused chatter started to fill the airwaves. "Who was it? One of ours?"
"No," Adebayo said. "Everyone's still in place." He rewound the sensor track and locked in on the missing ship's position. "Looks like it was a volus ship... the MV Pollus Maskawa. Holy shit, the quarians just blew it to scrap!"
"Why the hell would anyone attack the volus?"
"Wait a minute..." Adebayo squinted at his readouts. New contacts blossomed all over the scan, with trajectories coming from multiple vectors out of the quarian flotilla. The strength of the sensor returns made his mouth go dry. Over twenty ships decelerated from lightspeed, some registering hundreds of thousand tonnes in mass, and still more were coming. They were large enough that he could make some of them out through the windows. They were no mere transports or other support ships, but cruisers and dreadnoughts of the Flotilla, all making for the relay. Even as he watched, more ships jumped in.
"This is the Migrant Fleet Navy. We are assuming control of this transit corridor. Alien ships will follow our escorts to a safe sector away from the relay. Any ships attempting to transit the relay will be destroyed. This is your only warning."
Adebayo blinked. Considering the vector of the inbound ships and all the other vessels around them, they still had a shot at the relay. Still more quarian ships appeared behind. This wasn't just a patrol, it was a convoy, and he knew substantially sized quarian movement could block the relay for days.
"Get us out of here," Adebayo whispered.
"We should call the captain!"
"Get us out of here now!"
Hearing the panic in Adebayo's voice, the pilot swerved the ship around to align with the relay. Inertial computers re-calculated the ships mass down to a picogram as it turned, which in turn fed directly into the relay to calculate the jump. The Carcassonne sparkled with energy as the mass relay's core spun faster and faster. Particle beams from the advancing quarian navy converged on the Cerberus ship, and the relay propelled a cloud zero-mass debris hundreds of light years through space.
"Woah," Joker said, leaning forward in his seat to examine the comm display.
"What is it?" Miranda asked from her chair.
EDI's avatar pulsed above the console. "We have lost all telemetry with MV Pollus Maskawa."
Miranda almost ordered a diagnostic on the Normandy's communication array, but the chance of a second catastrophic comm failure in the span of a few minutes was impossible. "Charge all weapons, full power to the barriers, hold position."
"Eezo blooms across the board," Joker said. "Reactors firing up all around us. Getting movement... five, correction, six, now nine heavies accelerating out of position..."
"Shepard," Miranda said into the comm. "We've lost contact with-"
"GARDIAN activated," EDI announced. "Missiles inbound, multiple tracks."
"Joker, GO," Miranda shouted. "Pilot's discretion!"
"Say again your last?" Shepard asked.
Miranda hated giving incomplete reports, but she didn't know who was firing at them or what their target was. So she relayed the only thing she knew for sure as the sudden thrust of Normandy's engines pushed her deep into her chair. "We're under attack!"
On the floor of the Conclave, Xen watched Shepard from the corner of her eye. He idly surveyed the chamber with an almost relaxed posture when suddenly his hand went to his helmet, eyes wide behind his as he barked commands through his private communicator.
"Captain Wylo," he shouted as he ran to where the High Captain stood. "We're under attack!" Then, as to underscore his words, warning klaxons echoed throughout the Conclave chamber. Nine thousand quarian captains jumped to their feet at once, shouting over one another as they tried to coax any information from their useless comm systems. Above them, the giant holo displays hanging from the ceiling still showed the frozen image of the Rayya in its death throes.
Wylo, who had been talking Tali and another engineer, hurried back to his chair and reached up to the armrest for the hard line feed into the Anba's comm network and patched it to his helmet. Other High Officers did the same.
"What?" Wylo shouted over the warning sirens as he listened. "It's got to be a mistake. Tell them to terminate the attack immediately!"
"What is it?" Shepard demanded. "What's going on?"
The High Captain could barely comprehend the words he was about to say. "Ships of the Navy have engaged the Normandy."
A second alarm sounded, easily drowning out the first and every omnitool and every heads-up display in a quarian helmet glowed with the same message.
ALL SHIPS - ALL STATIONS - - IMMEDIATE ACTION REQUIRED FOR EMERGENCY FLEET RELOCATION
Xen watched calmly as the human stormed toward the High Captain, his favorite quarian Tali at his side, while all around the Captains of the Conclave rushed down the stadium aisles, flowing into the exit corridors on their way to the hangar decks. With the relocation order, every ship in the fleet would be getting underway. Anyone trying to get off the ship now would find themselves blocked in the corridors, the elevators, and in the docks themselves, unable to depart... unless they had prepared for such an emergency.
In front of Xen, both geth turned to follow Commander Shepard. "Excuse me, Blue, Legion," she called to them, "Would you come talk to me for a moment?"
"Negative," Legion said and continued on its way. "Highest priority, safety of Normandy collective."
Platform Two, however, stopped and returned to where Xen stood. She beckoned to it, and walked back in front of her. She looked the platform over from head to toe, then around at Legion, who kept on toward its human commander. Whatever the reason the code did not take with the other platform didn't matter. All she needed was one. And by the gods and the homeworld, if the Platform Two responded as she hoped, everything that had transpired with the Rayya, and everything that was about to happen with the Normandy will have been well worth it.
The geth's brilliant spotlight reflected in her mask, and she smiled like a mother looking upon her child. "Would you come with me, please?"
"Of course, Creator-Admiral," Blue said, and followed the quarian quietly to the stairs at the edge of the stage to merge seamlessly into the stream of quarians heading for the exits. But rather than waiting on the crowd pushing to get to the corridors beyond, Xen lead Blue through the door of one of the many antechambers surrounding the stage, where dozens of the Admiral's most trusted crew waited to greet them.
The Illusive Man sat bathed the glowing red light of Anadius, a glass of whiskey in one hand, a lit cigarette in his other. Without a single holo panel in front of him, he stared into the luminous patterns of prominences and flares which stirred across the star's atmosphere. Even though the AI which watched over the station recognized his pensive state, it still interrupted without hesitation, as it was programmed to do.
"We have received a transmission from our fleet at Raheel-Leyya," Eva said. "At least one of our ships, the Carcassonne, has been destroyed."
The Illusive Man took a deep drag on his cigarette. Smoke poured from his nose and mouth as he replied. "By the Normandy, I presume?"
"No. The quarian navy is massing at the relay as we speak. Over one hundred ships reported before we lost contact with the remainder of our fleet. Surveillance indicates that contact with all traffic around the relay has similarly, and suddenly, ceased. Data from neighboring sectors indicate the systematic destruction of all comm buoys in the Valhallan Threshold."
"The smoke screen before the charge." The Illusive Man exhaled his own cloud as if to emphasize his words. He sat up straight. "Alert Doctor Archer, and make sure his team is ready."
"Yes sir," Eva said.The Illusive Man watched the smoke in the air before him dissipated, revealing the sea of fire beyond. What happened in the next few hours would shape the future of the humanity, and the galaxy, forever...