For Tomorrow We Die

Diatribes and Dialogue

As soon as the Kodiak's hatch opened inside of Normandy's hangar, its passengers poured out, attended on all sides by deckhands organic and mechanical. Weapons needed to be collected, armor removed and stowed before anyone could even think of stretching after the cramped ride.

Tali stood in the hatch and prepared to hand down a crate of heat sinks Garrus on the deck when Shepard pushed his way through. "No, leave it. Everyone, keep your gear on the shuttle. We may be going back out before long."

With a collective shrug, the squad and the ground crew returned the crates of equipment and armaments to the Kodiak. Tali turned to Shepard but he dropped to the deck and made a beeline around the hull to the front. Tali clamped the crate she was holding back into place on the storage rack, then hopped down herself.

Standard geth platforms moved between the organics, performing maintenance checks on the shuttle and helping with the ordinance load. One of them stopped in front of her with a click and a buzz. Without Platform Two, the standard platforms were voiceless and without half of their collective processing power. Yet they still took orders from the Normandy crew, doing everything they could to help. Tali moved out of its way and it climbed past her into the Kodiak, and wove her way between her crew mates to follow the Commander.

She found him at the nose of the shuttle, talking to Miranda who tapped furiously on her datapad. Tali's eyes immediately locked on the Cerberus logo on the operative's uniform. Tali didn't even hear what they were saying as she focused on the elongated black-and-gold hexagon. "Did you find out anything more about who was behind the attack on the Rayya?"

Miranda and Shepard both turned to Tali with surprise. Ordinarily, Miranda's reaction to such a breach of decorum would be severe. She only shook her head, and her tone was very mild. "No, nothing more. Your navy has apparently eliminated all of the comm buoys in the Valhallan Threshold. We've been unable to conduct any searches over the extranet."

"Don't worry, Tali," Shepard said. "The Illusive Man is next. I promise."

"Right," Tali said. That wasn't even why she came over, but she couldn't help it. Seeing the Cerberus symbol all over the ship always made her uncomfortable, but she got used to it over the past year. Now, she'd never be able to look at it again without launching into a rage. As soon as she had time, she would see every logo scoured from the ship if she had to do it with her bare hands. "Shepard, listen. If Xen succeeds in infecting the geth, the platforms we have aboard will be affected."

Shepard looked about at the geth working all around them. "Shit, I didn't even think of that."

"I took care of it," Miranda said. "I had EDI remove geth access to any external transmitter or receiver until the danger is over. All of their cross-platform communications are being routed through EDI's filters for screening until further notice."

"Good," Shepard said with a relieved sigh. "How long until the virus package reaches Ma-At?"

"If they were at the front of the convoy, the first wave has already reached Dholen by now. As there is no relay at Ma-at, they'll have to use standard FTL to get there. At top speed," Miranda checked her datapad. "Just under three hours left."

"How long until we get to the Paz relay?"

"Two hours, thirty-five minutes."

"It's going to be close." Shepard turned to Tali. "Listen, I need to see you and Legion in my quarters, right now. We need to figure out what Xen's next move is going to be and how we can stop her."

Tali nodded. "I need to check in with Gabby first."

"Do it," Shepard walked back around the Kodiak to where most of the squad was still assembled, still wearing his full battle armor. "But make it fast. We've only got two and a half hours to stop a war."

Tali headed for the stairs leading to the engineering deck. The ship's senior Cerberus operative watched her go. Miranda had been trying to figure out what she would say when she next saw Tali after Xen's revelation of who destroyed the Rayya, but what was there to be said? The evidence was circumstantial at best, providing no real information other than a human had been the culprit, and even the source of the video was suspect. Ordinarily, she would have said so, but in her gut, she knew what had happened. They all did. The only question was would the quarian listen to, or care, what a former top-level Cerberus officer had to say at this point? "Tali?"

Tali kept walking, her shoulders slumped with exhaustion and despair. Without looking back, she continued on her way to Engineering.

"Welcome back to The Citadel Monitor. I'm your host, Tren Tran Uma, with special guests Salia T'Atona, historian and political analyst from Thessia, and Doctor Peter Poledouris, renowned historian and best-selling author. The topic is the on-again-off-again geth/quarian negotiations. While we're waiting for the feed from Raheel-Leyya to resume, let's get back to the bombshell that quarian Admiral Daro'Xen vas Moreh dropped on the Conclave just before communications were lost: the revelation that human terrorist organization Cerberus is allegedly responsible for the attack which destroyed the Rayya.

"For weeks now the Alliance has turned on its collective head trying to root out a deeply embedded network of Cerberus agents that infiltrated the highest levels of the human government. Alliance investigators claimed they had struck a crippling blow, arresting if not outright killing the the traitors in their midst in a massive purge that reached the top ranks of Alliance Command. While they never proclaimed outright victory, Ambassador Udina assured the Council that the situation was under control and claimed Cerberus had lost its ability to conduct any large scale operations. Now, it seems Cerberus may be more dangerous than ever, responsible for the single largest act of terrorism in the galaxy since the Vallum Blast. We ask our panel: what effect will this have on David Anderson's reinstatement to the Council? Salia T'Atona, your thoughts?"

"I think that question is on everyone's mind, Tren, and rightfully so. Before Admiral Anderson even thinks about moving back into his office on the Citadel, the citizens of the galaxy deserve an answer."

"Oh, here we go-"

"Don't interrupt, Peter, you'll get your turn. What the attack on the Rayya reveals is the complete lack of effectiveness of the Alliance efforts to clean house, to the point that one has to wonder if they are really trying it all-"

"Salia, you're not even waiting to hear the Alliance response to this, and you're already trying to shift blame-"

"-and further goes to prove the systematic manipulation of galactic politics by humans and the lengths they will go to achieve their goals."

"You're going to blame the Alliance for this? You're blaming the Alliance for what happened to the quarians?"

"Humanity's purposes are just a little too well-served by Cerberus for it to be a 'rogue' terrorist group at this point. And now the results are out in the open for all to see. Tens of thousands dead, an entire civilization brought to the brink of starvation-"

"In what way would killing quarians help humanity? Where's the benefit? Explain it to me. How does this help the Alliance?"

"Well it certainly doesn't help the quarians."

"Oh, so now all of the sudden you care about quarians?"

"Millions of innocent people, stranded in space, children going to bed without food, this could be a tragedy of galactic proportions-"

"'Could be'? It already is! Two days ago, the Citadel had the perfect opportunity to intervene but they couldn't have run away faster if they used a mass relay! It was the Destiny Ascension all over again, when the Council abandoned the Citadel-!"

"Unlike the Alliance we don't just do whatever we think is the most advantageous for us at the moment without considering the consequences-"

"I'm sorry, my apologies to our guests but we have to interrupt. I'm getting word of some breaking news. Just moments ago, confirmed by independent sources at Sahrabarik, warships of the quarian Migrant Fleet have blockaded the primary relay at Sahrabarik, and more ships are arriving every second. Some are speculating that this may be the opening move of a long-anticipated strike by the quarians to retake their homeworld. We now turn to Gunardi Williams for more..."

Councilor Tevos's hands trembled as she gripped the sides of her podium in the Citadel's Council Chamber. Flanked by Sparatus and Valern, the asari glared at the humans across the latticework floor overlooking the tree-filled atrium below. "Ambassador Udina," she struggled to keep her voice steady. "Mere hours ago, against the wishes of this Council, Commander Shepard returned to the quarian Migrant Fleet and reinstated peace talks with the geth. This after you told us that the Alliance had terminated the negotiations. You gave us your word that you would no longer pursue this course of action!"

Udina gave no reaction, standing with his hands clasped behind his back. Next to him stood David Anderson in his Alliance uniform, with a life-sized hologram of Admiral Hackett completing the human triumvirate. The Council had assembled to publicly reaffirm Anderson's status as Councilor, but as word of the quarian invasion spread, they ordered C-Sec to clear the chamber. The Council had new matters to discuss in private.

"And now," Tevos continued, "as we speak, the entire Migrant Fleet is streaking across the Terminus Systems, blockading every relay along their way, disrupting traffic and communications for millions of people across multiple systems as they prepare to wage war with the geth. Needless to say, this is not a situation we anticipated dealing with today."

Udina spoke through clenched teeth. "I promise you, Madam Councilor, we rescinded our offer to mediate as you requested. I spoke personally with Commander Shepard and he assured me that he understood the Alliance position. I state now, for the record, that Commander Shepard was acting on his own initiative, without our knowledge or consent."

Sparatus shook his head. "The mantra of the Earth Systems Alliance, whenever Shepard or Cerberus are concerned."

"What in god's name was he thinking?" Valern asked. "Is this his idea of bringing the geth and quarians together? Did he not think he'd done enough damage at Dashta, after we revoked the order to apprehend him? He needed an encore?"

Anderson sighed. How many times had he stood on this platform before, defending Shepard's acts as a Spectre? Or later, as Councilor, on the other side of the gap, defending Shepard's acts as an agent of Cerberus? Some things never changed. "Our analysis points to a military coup in the Migrant Fleet. Prior to the loss of signal, the Conclave had given every indication they were in favor of negotiations. It's no coincidence that it was only after Admiral Xen made her miraculous reappearance that they started their attack. This is not Shepard's doing."

"Not Shepard's doing?" Valern's large eyes widened. "Cerberus destroyed the quarian's largest liveship during peace negotiations that Shepard himself arranged! Is that coincidence? With their main source of food is destroyed, their only hope now is to get to their homeworld. What other choice do they have?"

"With all due respect, Councilor," Hackett said. His holographic image jumped and sparked. "the Migrant Fleet can't relocate on a whim. The logistics for an assault of this scale would have required weeks to prepare, and were certainly in place before the Rayya was destroyed. In fact, the SSV Shenyang reported large scale movements within the fleet hours before the explosion. The Admiralty Board's initial acceptance of negotiations was likely an attempt to trick the geth into lowering their defenses so the quarians could strike."

Sparatus's tone was surprisingly calm. "Negotiations spurred on by a proposal that Shepard orchestrated and your government delivered, gentlemen, without Council approval."

Anderson exchanged a sidelong glance with Hackett. "The point is while we're standing here debating, the Migrant Fleet Navy is crossing into geth-controlled space. Has anyone attempted to contact them?"

"Contact who?" Valern said. "The geth? The quarians? For what purpose? To ask them to back down? The quarians have no choice but to retake Rannoch now, thanks to Commander Shepard, and the geth will likely annihilate them. Do you think they're going to stop because we ask them?"

Anderson shook his head in disbelief. "You said it yourself, the quarians are driving on Rannoch because they're going to run out of food. What about relief efforts? Or giving them someplace else to go, where we can provide support?"

"It's too late for any of that," Valern said. "As the esteemed Admiral pointed out, it will take weeks to coordinate such an effort. Besides, do you have a direct line to the quarian fleet commanders? Or perhaps another secret link to the geth, assuming they'll still listen your first botched attempt at diplomacy got their their network hacked?"

Sparatus grunted. "Will either side listen to them now that it's public knowledge that humans were responsible for destroying the Rayya?"

Tevos shook her head. "All we can do now is mitigate the damage, and hope this pointless conflict doesn't spread any further and jeopardize our attempts to unify with the Terminus Systems against the reapers. As tragic as the situation may be, we cannot interfere."

"Agreed." Sparatus said.

"Undoubtedly," Velarn said.

"I don't believe this," Anderson said.

"Gentlemen," Tevos closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. "Do you understand now why situations like these must be brought before us as a group before action is taken? Why it's so important that none of us act alone?"

"Of course we understand," Udina said. "And from now own, the Systems Alliance and Citadel Council will act as one, for the security of everyone in the galaxy. Isn't that right, Admiral Anderson?"

The asari relaxed at Udina's capitulation and looked at Anderson. "Admiral?"

"I understand," Anderson gave Udina a dirty glance, then stepped forward to railing facing the Councilors. "I understand that you're protecting the image of the Citadel. That's all you're concerned with. That what you're really looking for is someone to take the blame. All I can suggest is that you look in a mirror. Shepard came to you a week before the negotiations went bad, before the Rayya was destroyed, before anyone had ever heard of Dashta. He gave you the reaper IFF. He gave you the coordinates of the collector base. He convinced our fleets to work together when none of you would listen. And what did he ask for in return? That his crew, the people responsible for saving all of us, every single man, woman and child in the galaxy, not be thrown into prison for the rest of their lives for doing it."

Anderson turned to the human ambassador to make sure Udina knew he was just as much of a target of his wrath as the Council. "He could have given us Cerberus too. Words on a piece of paper, that's all he asked for. He would have come in, given you Cerberus on a silver platter, and none of this would be happening now. Not Dashta, not the Rayya, not the quarian drive on Rannoch. None of it! But your precious reputations were at stake. You couldn't be seen as being soft on terrorism. You needed a trophy to parade to the press, and something to divert criticism away from yourselves. Nothing else mattered."

He ignored the shocked looks on the faces of the Council as he turned on his heel and strode past the two humans on his way to the stairs. Only Hackett made eye contact as he passed. "I have a great idea," Anderson said, his deep voice echoing around the empty chamber. "When it's all over, once the geth have wiped out the quarians, gather up all the wreckage you can find and pile it up in here a monument to yourselves. And on the plaque, inscribe in giant gold letters It Was all Shepard's Fault. Then pat yourselves on the back for saving the universe all by yourselves."

"Anderson!" Udina called after him.

"This is your problem now, Councilor!" Udina kept shouting his name, but Anderson ignored him, disappearing behind the branches of beautiful trees that lined the walkway as he descended the stairs that lead back to the presidium.

Matriarch Naranna closed her eyes as the sun's warm rays caressed her face through the Quorum's tall windows. When she opened them, she looked down to read Tevos's message on her datapad once more. The Council was not going to interfere with the coming quarian war. She smiled and deleted the message even though it was anonymous and free of any tracking. She looked up again at the bright blue sky that stretched over green grass beyond and took a long, savory sip of wine from the chalice in her other hand.

"Good news?" asked a voice from behind. It was Matriarch Toroma.

"What?" Naranna let her hand holding her datapad fall to her side. "Oh yes, a long-standing problem is on the cusp of resolving itself."

"Those are the best kinds of problems to have. What is it?"

Naranna shrugged and shook her head. "Old business. Though at my age, it might all be considered ancient by now."

The two of them laughed, and Toroma joined Naranna at the window. "Well, I'm glad to see you up and about and smiling. I have to say, I was a little concerned about you after... Well. You know."

"That's sweet of you," Naranna said and smiled with sadness. "But I'm going to miss her."

"We all will. Collona was a dear friend. But maybe it's just as well that she passed. I don't think she would have been able to bear the news."

"What news?

"You haven't heard? The quarians are making their move on Rannoch, and the projections don't favor their success. Collona would have been devastated."

Naranna shook her head and tsked. "How dreadful."

"Can you imagine," Toroma said. "She would have probably hopped the first charter she could and have run off to Rannoch to try and stop them."

"She might have at that," Naranna nodded in agreement. Collona and her sister both embraced the quarian culture as their own on Rannoch so long ago. Would they ever have gone, she wondered, if they had any inkling about the devastation their work would bring? "She did love the quarians so. But like you said, it's just as well she didn't live to see what is about to happen to them."

Toroma nodded. "Well, some fires can't be fought. They have to burn out on their own. Perhaps future generations can learn from their mistakes."

Naranna took another sip from her cup and stared at the green horizon beyond her window. "We can only hope."

Tali'Zorah stood at the head of Normandy's conference room with Shepard and Legion and tried to stay calm. The spiral of the Milky Way spun over the center of the table with navigation symbols sprawled across the galaxy, with familiar circle-and-stick topography linking remote systems together across vast distances. And across one track, marked in red, lay the course that could spell the end for the entire quarian species, for the geth, or for both.

The last time the entire squad had assembled here was after the Normandy had crashed on the collector base. Only this time, they were nine instead of twelve, and Tali would be doing the talking along with Shepard. She glanced to her side to see him standing tall, arms crossed, looking about to make sure everyone in the squad was paying attention as he spoke.

"Our best guess already puts the Migrant Fleet Navy at Dholen," Shepard said. "Thousands of ships are massing there as we speak. The order to take Rannoch could happen at any time, but there's reason to believe it hasn't happened yet. Tali, you want to fill everybody in?"

Tali took a deep breath and looked across the eyes of her friends. It was strange being the center of attention. Some, like Garrus, Kasumi and Jacob watched with concern and sadness, but also support in their eyes. Miranda also seemed engaged, for once keeping her eyes on the speaker instead of ticking away on her datapad. Even Samara and Zaeed, two notoriously detached members of the squad seemed to be more interested than usual. And then there was Grunt. Bless his heart, as much as the krogan tried to stand still and pay attention, he couldn't ignore the smell of blood in the air. The way he shifted his weight from foot to foot and his eyes gleamed in the light, he couldn't wait for what what she wanted most in her heart to avoid.

"According to quarian doctrine," Tali pointed to the map, "Navy battle groups will have secured the route from Raheel-Leyya to Tikkun, taking the relays at Sahrabarik, Nariph, and Dholen in preparation to invade the Perseus Veil. Their mission is to keep the relays clear of traffic so the heavy fleet and support elements can flow through unimpeded. Assuming the Navy is successful, the civilian ships of the Flotilla will catch up over the next few days. I don't know which exact invasion plan the Navy is following, but most have the Heavy Fleet massing at Dholen to transit as a single group for a concentrated strike on Tikkun."

"That's the quarian half of the equation," Shepard leaned in and zoomed in on the Far Rim. "Now the view from the other side. According to Legion, the geth plan has always been to let the quarians come to them. They'll abandon Dholen and fall back to Rannoch to fight a defensive engagement there, to allow for the greatest concentration of their processing power and physical platforms to repel the attack."

A 3-D tactical rendering of the Tikkun system appeared on the holo, showing a rapid-fire series of simulated engagements between two massive fleets. Shepard narrated as they flashed by. "Now, EDI has done an analysis based on information provided by both Tali and Legion, utilizing data that neither side has in their entirety. In every case, the quarians lose, and they lose big. They will be outnumbered and outfought, and though they may inflict heavy damage to the geth, they will ultimately fail. Losses to the Migrant Fleet will be extreme.

"But the quarians think they have an ace in the hole. Xen intends to take control of the entire geth collective by rewriting their core programming with a virus like the heretics intended to do a few months ago. If she succeeds, the geth are finished. If she doesn't, it's the quarians who pay the price. No matter what, only one side will remain standing."

Around the table, all eyes fell on the geth and quarian, together next to Shepard at the front of the room. "Now for the good news," Shepard said. "The virus can't be delivered remotely. It has to be loaded into an active geth hub, directly. There's only a few places that can be done, and we have a chance to stop it. Legion?" As before, Shepard moved away from the head of the table, and Legion took his place.

The geth's head flaps expanded and contracted as it spoke. "Geth processing hubs are located in the systems of Dholen, Tikkun, and Ma-at. When the Creator fleet arrives at Dholen, those hubs will be offlined and their processes transferred to platforms at Tikkun to consolidate defenses there, leaving no viable vector with which to infect the collective in the Dholen system. The hubs at Tikkun will be heavily defended and unsuitable for approach by any Creator vessel."

Legion zoomed the holo projector on a system with a single planet looping around a yellow star. "However, not all platforms and hubs beyond the Perseus Veil will be abandoned. This is the system of Ma-At, consisting of one G-type star and one planetary body. Ammut is a gas giant with nineteen moons housing gas collection and fabrication facilities. The collective will maintain a sizable presence in this system as a secondary rally point for repairs and refueling, as well as to provide a reserve to attack Creator forces from behind at Tikkun. Creator forces will either have to divert assets as a rear-guard against counterattack, or attack Ma-at directly to neutralize the threat, thereby destabilizing their main thrust toward Tikkun."

Zaeed leaned in for a closer look at the planet, surrounded by crisscrossing orbital paths. "And you think that's where Xen's gonna try and plant her little bug? That's a hornet's nest right there. Any quarian ship gets within visual range is gonna get chewed up and spat out long before they see dock."

"We concur with your assessment, Massani-Zaeed." The geth brought the star into closer view on the display to the point where nothing else was visible... almost. A thin green circle appeared around the star, accented with a tiny white dot. The display zoomed in once more on an irregular oblong rock with one hemisphere covered with squares like a disco ball. "But the most logical choice for insertion of virus by Creator forces is Orbital Body 413319. 43.6 kilometers in diameter, relocated to close orbit around Ma-at the start of heliosphere. Utilized by the collective for the development of thermal and solar power sources, Orbital Body 413319 contains a hub containing three million, two-hundred-twenty thousand geth processes."

Tali stepped forward and pointed at the projection. She and Legion spent an hour with Shepard in his quarters before the briefing, examining all of the possible scenarios. "That's where Xen will go. The asteroid's remote location and small size are perfect for her to exploit. Like Haratar, I mean the heretic station, it has virtually no external defenses. The geth have sensors scattered throughout the system, but they're mostly concentrated around Ammut. Xen wouldn't be able to get an entire fleet close without drawing attention, but a small ship, or better still, a stealth-equipped shuttle could get in without being detected. We did something similar to land our forces on Haestrom."

Leaning forward with his hands on the table, Shepard stared at the holographic projection in front of him. "Xen's goal will be to get to that asteroid while the Heavy Fleet gathers at Dholen to make the final assault on Rannoch. It's up to us to stop her before she can infect that hub."

"And how are we going to do that, Commander?" Samara asked the obvious question.

"Simple." Shepard said. "We make sure that hub goes offline before Xen gets to it. We do that and she's left with nowhere to stick that virus except up her waste port. Then we contact the quarian Navy to let them know they've lost their silver bullet, and hope they'll be smart enough to hold at Dholen. Maybe we hand them intel on the true size of the geth fleet to drive the point home."

Jacob looked at Legion. "And what about the geth?"

Legion's head flaps expanded. "The geth collective does not desire conflict with the Creators, but will defend itself from aggression. If Shepard-Commander is able to convince the Creator Fleet to retreat, there will be no further conflict. Though the geth collective is unaware that Shepard-Commander and the Normandy are intact, they will readily accept his input once identity is confirmed. Shepard-Commander's perspective is greatly valued when determining consensus in the collective."

"Those are some pretty big ifs."

"Yeah," Shepard said, "and we haven't even covered the biggest if, yet. The first step to stopping Xen is getting to Ma-at before she does. Toward that end... EDI?"

The ship's AI enhanced the display of the Paz system. "Analysis by Professor Solus of data recovered from the collector based indicates the presence of hundreds of unknown relays throughout the galaxy. These relays constitute a shadow network that allow reapers and their allies to navigate while avoiding detection by defending species, thus expediting the end of the cycle. Only vessels equipped with a reaper IFF are capable of utilizing these relays."

"And according to Mordin's data," Shepard switched back to the galactic map. A new relay transit line appeared. "We can get to Ma-At from Paz with only one additional transit in between... right here." He highlighted a segment at the very edge of the Milky Way galaxy, outside the furthest reaches of any known relay, far from any marked location on the map. "Utilizing it, we may be able to beat Xen to Ma-at."

"Oh, fun!" Kasumi said, breaking the stunned silence. "Do we get to name it? How about Omega Four? Wait, that one's taken, isn't it."

Garrus lowered his head and clamped his eyes shut. He'd been aware of Shepard's plan since the return of the Kodiak from the Anba. "Does the number '314' have any special significance to anyone else here?"

"Look, I know it's a risk," Shepard said, pacing at the head of the table. "One that has potentially dangerous repercussions. But so does letting Xen take control of the geth. If the fact they're enslaving sentient beings isn't enough, what do you think the Citadel is going to do if the quarians take control of the geth? They're not going to change their stance on allowing any culture possessing an AI. How long do you think until we're looking at another war?"

Shepard kept up his stride. "And if the geth win, and eradicate the quarians? Say goodbye to any chance of anyone in Citadel space ever believing the geth want peaceful contact with organics. They'll never recover from it. And no matter what, the Citadel is going to make damn sure the Alliance takes the blame right when we need everyone to stand together to fight the reapers. So what happens in the next few hours has repercussions far beyond the Perseus Veil and we're the only ones who can stop it. And if everything I've said isn't enough to convince you, I want you to look at your two shipmates here in the eye and explain why not."

The assembled squad members all looked at Legion and Tali next to Shepard at the head of the table. Soon, everyone was nodding to themselves and each other, but no one spoke until Shepard broke the silence. "Joker," he called out. "How long until we're ready to transit the Paz relay?"

"Ah, Thirty-three minutes," Joker replied. "Assuming it's not buried in a giant snowball or something."

"All right people," Shepard said, trying not to think about Joker's remark. If the relay was encased in ice, or lava, or cotton candy they'd know soon enough. They'd have to deal with it then. "To your stations. Ground team, get suited up and stay close to the the shuttle. We won't know if we're going to need you until we do, so be ready."

"Wait," Grunt said. Everyone stopped and looked at the krogan. "Let me get this straight... We're trying to prevent a fight?"

"I'm afraid so, Grunt," Shepard said. "But don't worry. Someone will try and stop us. I guarantee it."

Grunt's maniacal laugh filled the room. "Ah! I do love it when it they try!"

Everyone laughed except for Tali. The squad departed, pausing to offer assurances to both Legion and her as they streamed out the door. It was a silent nod, a pat on the back, or spoken encouragement, but everyone made their feelings known as they walked by. Only Garrus stayed still, arms crossed, staring at Shepard.

Zaeed shook his head as he rounded the table. "Never pass up the chance to be a big goddamn hero, eh, Shepard?"

"Not that we'll get any credit for it," Jacob said as he followed Zaeed out. "Five'll get you ten it'll just mean fresh charges whenever it is we get back to Citadel space."

"Virtue is its own reward," Samara said as she passed. "We will not falter as our cause is just."

"It is, if you mean just plain crazy." Kasumi tugged at the sides of cowl. "But that's never stopped us. Once more into the breach, dear friends!"

"Now that's from Shakespeare," Miranda's voice drifted from the hallway. "Except it's 'once more unto the breach.'"

"Miranda, seriously," Jacob said, "put down the red pen, will ya?"

Soon, only Shepard, Legion,Tali and Garrus remained in the conference room. The entire time, the turian kept his focus trained squarely on Shepard. Facing down Xen at Ma-at didn't bother Garrus in the least. That the powers that kept the galaxy turning on its axis had put them in a situation where his human commander would have to activate an uncharted relay did. Maybe Garrus wasn't the best turian in the Hierarchy, but there were some rules that were in place for a reason, and this one he believed in.

"Got something to say, Garrus?" Shepard said.

The turian noticed both Tali and Legion staring back at him. Flanking their human commander on each side, the quarian and geth standing together under their current circumstances made him shut his mouth. You were the one who put him there when you convinced him to be the peacemaker, Garrus thought. Right in the middle of it. He cleared his throat as Tali's and Legion's eyes burned upon him with equal intensity. "No, nothing. Well, nothing important. I was just thinking that... You know, Fleet and Flotilla gets kind of a bum rap. It's hokey, to be sure. Saccharine, definitely, in how it portrays different species overcoming their prejudices in the impossible pursuit of happily ever after. Against all odds, against all reason, love and friendship conquer in the end. Not realistic at all."

"No," Shepard said. "It's not."

Garrus found it hard to say anything else. He had been about to argue Citadel protocol with people who meant more to him than anybody else in the entire universe. Modern science could not measure how big of an ass that would have made him. He stomped toward the hatch. "Not that anyone on this ship appreciates it, either. If you'll excuse me, I've got to go clean up the mess left by my friends on the door to my quarters."

Shepard burst into laughter so hard he had to brace himself against the briefing room table. It only intensified when he saw the genuine indignation on the turian's face.

"That was vandalism, Shepard. Pure and simple. And judging by your reaction, you're not going to do a damn thing about it."

Shepard held up his hands. "Hey, chain of command. Take it up with the XO. I had nothing to do with it."

Garrus let loose a deep growl as he stormed through the hatch, which only made Shepard laugh harder.

Tali looked at the empty hatch with confusion. "What was that all about?"

Shepard put his hands on Tali's shoulders. "You need to go check out Garrus's door. Words can't describe. Legion, level with me. Was that your handiwork again?"

"Negative," Legion said. "Goto-Kasumi approached this unit with data indicating that interest in Vakarian-Garrus's affinity toward Fleet and Flotilla was waning amongst the Normandy Collective. Our analysis indicated that further action was unwarranted, but Goto-Kasumi disagreed, and suggested further recourse. We did not encourage her."

"Of course not," Shepard said. "You do not wish to incite."

"That is never our intention," Legion said. "But we did contribute. It is important that we involve ourselves in all activities of the Normandy Collective in a meaningful fashion."

"We appreciate your solidarity, Legion," Shepard laughed again, until he saw Tali's confused stare. "Oh, you've got to see it. "

"I guess I've had other things on my mind," Tali said.

Shepard's smile faded immediately.

Tali kept her eyes on Shepard but addressed the geth. "Legion, I need you to get down to Engineering. Make sure we're ready for transit. Tell Gabby I'll be down in a minute."

Legion's camera eye panned between the human and quarian. "Acknowledged," it said, and after a brief pause, exited through the hatch.

Tali shut the door behind it and stared at the top of the table. She took a deep breath and paused to collect her thoughts. In spite of the levity of the past few minutes, her voice shook when she spoke. "I'm sorry I got all of you into this. I had no idea all of this was going to happen."

Shepard knew he was in for trouble the instant Tali shut the door. He leaned back against the table so he could look her in the eye. "So this is all your fault now? How do you figure that?"

"If I had listened to you. If we had done all of this remotely over comms like you said... None of this would be happening. Keelah! The entire fleet. The entire collective..."

Shepard cut her off. "Don't do this to yourself. It's not on you. Any of it. The Admiralty Board was planning for war long before the geth offered to negotiate. You know that. And you saw how far they were willing to go to make it happen. We beat them at Dashta and it made no difference. The Illusive Man destroyed the Rayya and they're still going through with it. They've been pushing for this war from the start. This isn't your fault, no matter how much you want it to be."

Tears streamed down Tali's cheeks as she braced herself against the table. "I don't understand. The more I try to help, the worse it gets and it's my own people working against me. It's like I'm a traitor for wanting to end the war. I'm not, am I? It's killing me inside, Shepard. I don't know how much longer I can do this."

Shepard reached out and put his hand on Tali's shoulder. She stood and turned her back against the table as well, then slumped next to him. Not knowing what else he could do, he put his arm around her.

Tali just stared at the floor. "I don't know how you do it. How do you keep going?"

Shepard let out a long breath. How indeed, he thought. "You want the truth?"

"Please. I can't take any more lies."

"Well, sometimes, I don't think I should."

Tali looked up at him, eyes wide. "What?"

"It's a waste of time. All of it. I risk my life, the lives of my crew, over and over and no one cares. I look back at everything that's gone wrong, everyone that's stood in our way, all the people we're trying to save that fight us every step of the way. I think about all the true evil I've seen people do, and I think... maybe we don't deserve to be saved. Let the reapers come. Let them wipe us out, the whole lot of us. Scour the galaxy clean, start over. Let the next cycle have their turn. Maybe they'll do better. To hell with trying to stop it. Let's all go get drunk somewhere and wait for the end."

Tali blinked. Hearing those words come from Shepard's mouth made her forget everything that hat gotten them to this point, and what was waiting for them at Ma-at.

"But then," Shepard turned to her, a small smile on his face. "I remember. Hell, I can't forget, no matter how hard I try. I remember that for every Uvenk I've met, there's a Wrex and a Grunt. For every Morinth, a Liara and a Samara and a Shiala. For every Saren, there's been a Garrus, and an Artuis and a Lorian. For every VI that's been programmed to take us out, there's an EDI and a Legion. And for every Xen, a Reegar, a Wylo... and a Tali'Zorah vas Normandy."

Tali looked up at Shepard, unable to speak.

"And for every Illusive Man, there's an Anderson and a Hackett. There's a Miranda and a Jacob, a Kasumi and a Zaeed, a Chakwas and a Joker..."

Tali felt the tears welling up again. Out of everyone the Commander had mentioned, he left out the most important person of all. "And a Shepard."

Shepard laughed and looked away. "Well I don't know what one of those will get you. Citadel arrest warrants and a shortened life expectancy maybe. Anyway, the point is any time I feel like giving up, I think about all of you. And damn if that doesn't get me fired up to do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes. How's that for saccharine and sentimental?"

"Yeah," Tali said, her voice wavering. "That's pretty silly. Real Fleet and Flotilla thinking."

"Pretty good motivation, though. I bet it'd work for you, too."

Tali nodded repeatedly, amazed at how much better just hearing the names of her friends made her feel. Suddenly, the urge to curl under the table and cry until the crisis was over was gone. It was as if Shepard had somehow jacked her suit directly into the ship's Eezo core. "It did," she said in disbelief. "How'd you do that?"

"It's not me," Shepard shrugged. "It's something about this ship. So... what do you think? Can you get us through this relay?"

"If you think I'm going to let you down after all that," Tali said, "You're crazy."

"Atta girl," Shepard gave Tali a slight squeeze before standing upright, guiding Tali to the hatch with his arm still around her shoulder.

"Shepard, wait," Tali stopped just before the hatch sensor's pickup range. He turned toward her, his eyebrows arched in expectation. Why was it that when she was alone, she always knew what she would say to him, but when they were face to face, her brain froze up like it was flooded with liquid nitrogen?

"What's up?"


"Ten minutes to the relay, Commander," Joker's voice drifted over the PA.

"Be right there," Shepard said, then looked back at Tali, a confused look on his face. "What is it?"

Ten minutes, Tali thought. She needed to get down to Engineering to make sure the reactors and Mass Effect generator were all ready for transit. The entire Migrant Fleet could live or die depending on every second wasted, and if that wasn't enough, her crew and her captain were all counting on her to do her job as well. She patted Shepard on the chest and rushed toward the hatch, simultaneously activating her omnitool to check on the drive status, full of new-found energy. "Never mind, we can talk later."

"Okay then," Shepard said to the empty room. He turned to follow the fleeing form of his chief engineer to CIC, but realized the central holo projector was still active. He reached out to the console to switch it off, but not before taking a final look at where two navigational plots converged on Ma-at, a system few cared about or even heard of. The only thing that mattered was who would get there first.

"Hold the elevator!" Tali scrambled around the corner into CIC to see the lift door close. A human hand blocked its path, and it re-opened. Tali barged in, still looking at her omnitool, barely able to avoid bumping into any of the occupants.

"Oh..." Enlea T'Vari groaned as she shifted behind Miranda to keep the Cerberus operative and the other human crew present between herself and the quarian. Even without the threat of hostile geth platforms present, she wanted to keep her distance from the Normandy's volatile engineer.

Miranda, however, seemed unfazed. "Deck four?"

"What?" Tali looked up from her omni. "Oh, yes. I- Thank you."

Miranda nodded and watched the level indicator, along with everyone else in the lift. A chime sounded, and the door opened to the crew deck. The asari informant slipped hurriedly through the hatch without looking back, but Miranda waited patiently for her crewmates to disembark before walking out herself.

The flash of polished black and white leather under the elevator lights made Tali look up as the Cerberus operative departed. "Miranda?"

Miranda turned, holding the door open. It was the first time she could recall that the quarian had addressed her by her first name, and not Miss Lawson.

"I know it wasn't you," Tali blurted out.

Miranda looked down at the deck. After Jack, Tali had been her main detractor on the ship. Even after the quarian had accepted a geth as a shipmate, if not a friend, she was never able to drop her hostility toward the human. But then, Legion had done everything it could to prove it wasn't the enemy. Could Miranda honestly say the same thing? Maybe it was time she did.

"We'll get him, Tali." Miranda said with as much conviction as she could muster. "Once we stop Xen... we'll get them all."
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