In the Anba's Conclave Chamber, the Normandy delegation followed Wylo through a long aisle that ran to the center stage. The arena fell silent. Glowing eyes looked down from both sides of a metal canyon as the Normandy crew and geth passed beneath. As they reached the floor, the entirety of the quarian Conclave stared from all directions. Shepard had the uncomfortable feeling of a boxer being led to the ring before the main event.
Wylo led them up a narrow set of stairs that lead to the stage, awash with bright lights from above. Both Legion and Blue sparkled in the light. As they reached the top, they found themselves at the center of fifty elevated chairs occupied by the High Officers of the Conclave, Captains appointed based on the populations of their ships to officiate its most important matters. Captain Wylo's chair, aligned with the bow of the ship, sat the highest.
As instructed by the High Captain before their arrival, the delegation from the Normandy moved to the aft section of the stage where three rows of benches faced the circle. The quarian, human, and two geth took seats on the front row and waited to be addressed.
Out of habit, Tali scanned the ring of officers, looking to see who was in attendance and where they sat. As the Conclave met only once every hundred cycles, changes in position were common. All but one of the seats was occupied. The chair next to captain Wylo was empty.
Shepard followed Tali's gaze and opened a private channel on his comm. "What's wrong? Who's missing?"
Tali managed to keep her voice steady. "Captain Kar'Danna vas Rayya."
"Captain Shepard vas Normandy," Wylo said from his chair, his voice amplified by the auditorium's PA. "Twenty-eight cycles ago, the human Systems Alliance approached the Admiralty Board with a peace initiative from the geth. This initiative was withheld from this body by the Admirals in a deliberate attempt to influence the appointment of a new admiral and more importantly bypass Conclave and the quarian people when negotiating with the geth. We were kept in the dark, just as we were when at least one of the sitting admirals attempted to lure you and your crew into an ambush at Dashta. These acts were neither sanctioned nor condoned by this body, and the Conclave would like to offer its formal apology on behalf of the quarian people."
"High Captain," Shepard stood when addressed, as Tali had coached him. "High Officers, and Captains of the Conclave, both aboard and embarked; thank you for this opportunity to appear before you. Keelah se'lai."
Like the congregation of a church, the quarians in the chamber returned the greeting.
"As Captain of the Normandy, I accept your apology and would like to relay my crew's deepest sympathies for the tragedy that befell the Rayya. Our thoughts are with those who've lost friends, loved ones, and shipmates in the disaster."
"Thank you, Captain Shepard," Wylo said. "Let it also be entered into the log the Conclave's regret over the death of Ambassador Castillo of the Systems Alliance. He was clearly committed to the notion of peace in spite of the actions of those he was trying to help, and it is our greatest hope that his death was not in vain. Toward that end, Commander Shepard has brought a representative of the geth to appear before us today, to present their case for a ceasefire between the Migrant Fleet and the geth collective. The outcome of this session will determine the course this body takes in terms of negotiations. Commander Shepard, are you and your party prepared to proceed?"
"Is the Conclave ready to proceed?"
"Aye," said the crowd in unison.
From Wylo's right, a quarian in a dark red environment suit stood slowly from her chair. The surrounding captains stood halfway up, not just out of respect, but readiness to catch the elderly woman as she staggered to her feet. She nodded to them and they sat back down. Keeping her hands on the armrest, she navigated her way to the floor. She stopped to pick up a bundle of green fabric from an attendant and placed it under her arm before shuffling across the stage.
"Who's this?" Shepard asked Tali.
"Captain Sanul'Mirron vas Tasense," Tali whispered, even though she spoke on a private channel. "One of the oldest captains in the Fleet. Very well respected and liked by the rest of the Conclave. It's a great honor to serve on her ship. She's been a High Officer for decades and often takes on the role of Speaker in situations when outsiders are involved. Legion, Blue? Stand." Tali stood next to Shepard as Mirron made her way toward them. The geth followed suit.
Mirron slowed near the middle of the floor. "Captain Shepard, would you and our guest meet me halfway? I'm afraid at my age, it will take me too long to get there."
Muted laughter filled the auditorium, and Shepard smiled. "Of course, Captain. Blue?" Shepard led the geth platform to the center of the stage.
Tali glanced at Legion as it watched its counterpart follow Shepard-Commander to meet the Conclave's speaker. She knew status meant nothing to the geth, but she shook her head anyway. "It should have been you."
Legion's head flaps expanded, but it said nothing.
Mirron, hunched over as she was, barely came up to the Shepard's chest and had to tilt her head sideways to see him. Her eyes seemed narrow and cloudy compared to every other quarian he'd seen, especially through her face mask. "Captain Shepard. It seems the only reason we ever invite you to the fleet is when there's a crisis to be solved. I wish the circumstances were different. It's an honor to meet you in person."
"The honor's mine, Captain Mirron. And we're here to help any way we can."
Mirron looked around Shepard to the aft benches, focusing on the young woman with the lavender-swirled cowl. "How's that engineer of yours working out?"
"Best a captain could ask for."
"You're damn right," Mirron said, giving Shepard a friendly poke in the chest. "You take good care of her, now, and she'll take care of you."
Unable to turn her head, Mirron shifted her body to face the geth. "So what do we have here?"
"Captain," Shepard said, "may I introduce Mobile Platform Two, a terminal of the geth. Or, as we've come to call it, Blue."
"Creator-Captain," Platform Two spoke in quarian fleet standard.
Slowly, painfully, Mirron straightened her back and neck to look the geth in its eye, as if finally recognizing what she was talking to for the first time. For a few moments, only the sound of heavy breathing emanated from her vocalizer. She held out the bundle of cloth to Blue in frail, shaking hands.
Blue took the bundle between its hands. It's camera panned back and forth between Mirron and the cloth.
"Go ahead," Mirron urged. "Open it."
Shepard tensed. Was it a gift? A tribute? Some kind of bomb?
Blue peeled back the cloth. It unfurled into a banner much like those that hung around the conclave and draped to the floor. It was solid green, with a gold pinwheel design in the middle surrounded by ornate script.
Mirron took a step back. "Hold it up, please. Higher. Wider. Do you know what this is?"
"What is it then?"
"Flag of the Republic of Viantane," Blue announced. "Established Creator Year 1311, Southern continent of Karrenta."
"That's right. Very good. Obviously nothing wrong with your memory. We fly their flag to this day, yet they have no representation in the Conclave. Do you know why?"
Mirron cocked her head and waited for the geth to continue. "Well?"
Shepard cleared his throat. "Ma'am, if I may. The geth response depends heavily on how you phrase the question. They are extremely literal. Give them a yes or no question, and that's the kind of answer you'll get."
"I see. Okay then. Blue, why does Viantane have no representation in the Conclave?"
"There are no citizens of Viantane in the Creator Flotilla."
"Correct," Mirron nodded. "Viantane never pursued a space program. They had no holdings off of the homeworld. Their culture remained deeply rooted in traditional agriculture even after the rest of the world advanced into the information age. They were one of the few countries that didn't approve of the use of geth in their daily lives. So tell me, what is the current quarian population of Viantane now, on the homeworld?"
"Zero," Mirron repeated. "What happened to them?"
"Their entire population was eradicated during the Morning War."
"You mean killed. By who?"
"Well," Mirron stared at the unfurled flag still held by the geth. "At least you're honest about it. But they represented no threat to you. They were incapable of fighting back, incapable of retreating or escaping. After their capital was overrun, their parliamentary leaders offered unconditional surrender. They begged for their lives. You killed them anyway. All of them, didn't you?"
"It seems I'm doing all the talking, here." The old woman huffed in her respirator, her voice now impatient. "It was the same all over the homeworld and the colonies. Only a small fraction of our population engaged the geth. The rest had no offensive capability. Some even fought to preserve you. But that didn't matter. You didn't discriminate. If the target was quarian, you destroyed it."
"Yes," repeated the geth.
Mirron's voice broke. "You didn't have to! Our defenses were smashed. Everyone who could run, did! And everyone we left behind, you killed! Hospitals were overrun. Children slaughtered in their schools... Surrender meant nothing to you."
Blue's flaps expanded and contracted. "Request allied assistance, Shepard-Commander."
"No!" Mirron took a step toward the geth. "I want to hear it from you. You have to answer for this. No one else. Why didn't you stop? Billions died... Billions. Killed without mercy. Why did you do it? Why?"
"We judged the creators to be a threat to our existence. The threat had to be neutralized."
"But you just acknowledged we weren't all a threat."
The geth's flaps expanded. "We acted based on available data."
"That's it? That's all you have to say for yourselves?"
The geth stared at her. "This unit has accurately answered your query."
"Captain," Shepard put his hand between the quarian and geth. "What are you looking for?"
Mirron kept staring at the geth. "I don't know. Remorse? Regret? Some sign that the geth are sorry for what they did. Some measure of compassion. Ambassador Castillo's proposal mentioned repeatedly that the geth were capable of rudimentary emotions. You were also quoted, praising your geth, Legion, for its loyalty and self sacrifice. We were led to believe that we were dealing with more than machines when we agreed to talk to them. Is that not the case?"
"That's not how the geth work," Shepard said. "You won't get a direct apology. You won't see an emotional response. It's much more subtle than that."
"As subtle as planet-wide genocide?"
Shepard looked around at the sound of the audience's collective rumblings. "They're here to help you, even after the Admiralty Board tried to trick them. Isn't that enough?"
"Who's trying to trick who here, Captain?"
"It's not the geth," Shepard said, feeling his face redden beneath his helmet. "You can't let what happened in the past destroy your future."
Mirron turned to Shepard, her eyes clamped tight. "What do you know of our past? Do you think by taking a quarian into your crew you're some kind of expert? Tell me, Shepard, when was the last time you set foot on your homeworld? It's called Earth, isn't it? Blue skies, green forests, oceans of blue, right? Imagine it with all of its cities, all of its people, going about their lives under their warm sun. Now imagine them dead in the streets, and in their homes, and in their shelters. Dead because 'available data' designated them as threats to an unfeeling machine. Imagine hearing the screams of Earth from the depths of space as your world dies, being powerless to stop it, recording it, preserving it because that's all you have left. Everything else, writings, architectural wonders, symphonies, artwork from hundreds of cultures, thousands of years of history... erased." She reached out and pulled the flag from the geth's hands and began to fold it back into a bundle. "Leaving you with only a handful of relics to remember who you were."
As hard as he tried to maintain eye contact, Shepard had to look away. The fact was that ever since he'd learned of the reapers, he couldn't go to sleep without envisioning them over Earth, scouring the surface and laying waste to his homeworld in the very way Mirron described.
"Now imagine afterwards," Mirron said, "meeting those responsible for the first time, being told it was a misunderstanding that caused the murder of ninety eight percent of your entire population. What would you say to them? What would you want to hear? If they offered peace, would you trust them? Or would you worry if they had returned to finish what they started?"
Mirron's eyes burned behind her mask as she turned back to the geth. "You took everything from us. Not just the lives of our people, but our very souls. Our entire history, our future. And all you can do is stand there and confirm it. So tell me, if you are sentient beings capable of emotion as the Ambassador and Captain Shepard have asserted... how does that make you feel?"
Blue buzzed and clicked, caught in an apparent loop as Legion was prone to do when confused or building consensus. But this spell lasted far longer than anything Legion had experienced. Shepard knew the answer most likely to come from the platform was the last thing the quarians needed to hear.
"No data available."
"Keelah," the comm tech pointed at his holo display. "Look at all of that!"
Rundan leaned over the tech's shoulder. The geth stream was still encrypted, but the sheer volume of data coming across now filled the bandwidth across a range of frequencies. Then, as quickly as it the flood of data began, it subsided. "Incredible. Run it back. What did Mirron ask that provoked that response?"
Rundan's heart pounded beneath his suit. The massive data stream had already been disseminated to the rest of the ships on the project team, but he tapped out a message on his omnitool to his commander anyway, confirming what they just saw.
I saw it, came her response. If the Conclave is unable to provide the appropriate stimuli again, I'll do it myself.
Rundan smiled, anticipating building in his gut. He put his hand on the comm tech's shoulder. "If we can get it to do that a few more times," the he murmured, the holo display reflected in his mask and wide eyes, "the war will be over before the negotiations even start."
"What does that mean?" Mirron asked. "You can't answer, or you don't want to answer?"
"No data available."
Groans and shouts erupted from the audience on all sides, causing a ripple of thousands of flashing lights across the chins of every quarian helmet around the chamber. Even the high officers of the Conclave joined in.
Mirron shook her head at the geth and started to stagger back to her seat. "I think we've heard enough."
"Captain, please," Shepard said. "Its answer doesn't mean what it sounds like."
"What does it mean, then? We were promised answers, Shepard. Dialogue! With a representative eager to engage us, capable of telling us what we need to know. Instead, we get no data available?"
"Shepard," Tali's voice came over Shepard's earpiece, filled with urgency. "Request permission for me to take the deck."
Shepard didn't hesitate for clarification. "Request permission for my Chief Engineer to take the deck."
The high officers turned to one another, and began nodding in agreement. They looked to Captain Wylo. "Permission granted."
Tali walked to the center of the stage, calmly, slowly, feeling every eye of every captain in the Conclave upon her, fully aware that every quarian in the fleet was probably watching. She knew that whatever transpired in the next few minutes would decide the future of her people forever.
"Captain Mirron," she said, bowing her head. "Captain Shepard is correct. That particular response doesn't indicate that the geth are being evasive or uncooperative. They understand what you're asking, and they want to respond, but it's unable to formulate an answer. I've seen this before."
"It's a simple question," Mirron said.
"It is for us. But the geth think differently. They're billions of separate intelligences who share a common consciousness, not individuals. Our concepts of love, hate, happiness and fear don't have a direct equivalent. You can't ask a single geth how it feels. They can't explain in a way we understand, because they don't understand us. They can use our words, but they don't mean the same thing when applied to the entire collective. I believe only way to determine the geth emotional state, to understand what they are feeling, is to observe their behavior. I have something to present that illustrates this point perfectly."
"We've seen enough their behavior," shouted a member of the Conclave, followed by another round of shouts and curses from around the room.
"The geth reacted without restraint," Tali said, now addressing the auditorium, "because they didn't know better. They didn't know of morality, atrocities, rules of engagement, or the concept of non-combatants. We never taught them. They only knew existence and nonexistence, and that their very existence was at risk. More importantly, they didn't understand how we worked as a people. Individuality wasn't a concept they could understand. The geth act on consensus. Once consensus is achieved, they follow it. They thought we operated under the same rules, because those were the only rules the geth knew. Consensus. All or nothing. It was a binary situation for them. Some quarians came to the conclusion that the geth were a threat and attacked, but to the geth that meant all quarians participated in generating that consensus. Some quarians were a threat, so we all were. They reacted, on the most basic level, to protect themselves. It wasn't until much later that they understood that they were wrong about us. That we are individuals, each capable of our own consensus... but the damage had been done."
"How do you know all of this?" Mirron asked.
Tali's voice failed her. How could she explain to the Conclave that she had been communicating directly with their greatest enemy? They were already reacting with hostility. If she kept going, they might stop listening to her altogether. Then, from the corner of her eye, she saw a comforting flash of red and white next to her.
"Because we talked to them," Shepard said, moving next to Tali. "That's all it took. In the three hundred years since the war, how many times has the Migrant Fleet attempted to contact the geth?"
"None," came a voice from the ring of High Officers. It was Captain Fasha, the quarian who nearly instigated a riot in the Normandy's hangar during their visit. "Because we don't have to. Why should we negotiate with a calculator? Why are we listening to this at all? Tali'Zorah isn't even a crewmember of the flotilla, and it's clear from her actions today that she no longer has the security of the Migrant Fleet or the quarian people as her first priority. Perhaps she's spent so much time in the company of aliens she's forgotten who she is."
Shepard's jaw dropped. Conclave or not, outnumbered thousands-to-one, no one was going to take a shot at one of his crew like that. But before he could say anything, Tali walked in front of him to stand alone in the center of the stage.
All the times she had spoken here before, Tali hid behind a podium or behind her father, eyes down, voice trembling, stuttering, afraid to make a mistake or of offending any of the captains of the fleet. That girl was gone. This was her deck, now. "You all know me. You knew my father. You know everything Clan Zorah stands for. I've been studying the geth my entire life. I've been beyond the Veil. I've set foot on our former colonies overrun with geth, torn down hundreds of platforms of every type and stared down the barrels of more geth pulse rifles than anyone else in this chamber. So, should you listen to me? Or to a captain whose area of expertise is pandering to children returning from pilgrimage in order to keep her position as a High Officer secure?"
Gasps of surprise echoed throughout the chamber. Fasha sprung to her feet, her hands gripping the bannister in front of her. "You will not speak to me like that, exile! I am a High Officer of the Conclave!"
Tali shrugged and walked back to where the rest of the delegation stood. "I wasn't going to mention any names, but thank you for speaking up."
Shouts of rage and disbelief echoed through the auditorium. But over their cries, louder shouts could be heard, for the captains to sit down and listen. Some in the crowd shouted at their neighbors, others at the delegation on the stage while the high officers all stood, arms raised, trying to quiet the crowd. Even Caption Mirron, with her limited range of motion, did her best to calm everyone down.
"Shepard, what's your status," Garrus said over the comm. "Your vitals just jumped through the stratosphere."
"Stand by," Shepard said, his eyes darting between the crowd the entrance through which they arrived. He marked the door on his tactical display, synced to the rest of the squad, hoping they wouldn't need to use it.
"Order!" Wylo's shouted over the PA once more. "Order! We will have order or I will call for Dispersal and the matter will be decided by a special session of the High Officers!"
Slowly, the din subsided and the captains of the Conclave returned to their seats. Shepard keyed his mic. "We're okay for now, Garrus. Hold position."
"Tali'Zorah vas Normandy," Wylo said. "You have the floor. But remember to whom you are speaking. This conduct is inexcusable."
"Apologies for being direct, High Captain," Tali said. "But we don't have time for this. You either trust my expertise with the geth, or you don't. We can spend the next century debating who's to blame for the uprising but I'm telling you now, if we fail in these negotiations the Fleet is finished. We will die out, and we'll have no one to blame but ourselves. Let me know if you're ready to proceed, or we might as well conclude this session right now."
She walked back to Shepard and Blue, shaking her head as she looked at the deck. She could feel their eyes on her, and she glanced up. Shepard said nothing, but from the way the corner of his eyes crinkled, there had to be one hell of a smile behind his mask. He gave her the slightest of nods, and she let out a long breath. "What are they doing?" she asked over the squad channel.
"Talking to each other, mostly," Shepard said. "Picking their jaws off the floor. I think Fasha's going to need a new one after the hit you put on her. That was beautiful, Tali."
"Thanks. I just hope I didn't screw everything up right now."
"Chief Zorah," Captain Mirron asked, shuffling to stand in front of Tali. "I've read Castillo's report and I have to say I find many aspects difficult to believe."
Tali turned bowed to the captain, pointedly avoiding eye contact with Fasha. Courtesy demanded reciprocation. "Like what, ma'am?"
Mirron pulled up the report on her omnitool. "First... that the geth no longer occupy the homeworld."
"That's correct. The geth abandoned Rannoch some time ago."
"How do you know? Have you've seen it?"
"No," Tali shook her head. "Not in person."
"The geth told you?"
Mirron cleared her throat. "And more recently, the geth are reportedly building a new liveship, to replace the Rayya."
"It's nearly complete."
"So you've seen that, then?"
Tali shook her head. "No. Not firsthand."
"Then how can we trust any of what we're being told?" Mirron said, to the immediate applause of the entire conclave. "I mean no disrespect, Chief Zorah. You and your father have long been a voice my clan trusts when it comes to the geth and protecting the Fleet. But I'm looking, and I see only... stories. Told by the geth and relayed by the humans. That's not much for us to base the future of the Flotilla on, is it?"
Tali sighed with relief. If Captain Mirron was still willing to listen, most of the Conclave might be too. "It all goes back to what we were discussing earlier. Feelings and emotions. A quarian can tell you she is happy or sad, feeling love or hate, respect and fear. The geth can't. But they can show it."
She looked over at the other geth platform, sitting alone and forgotten on the benches on the aft end of the stage. "Request permission for Legion vas Normandy to stand on deck."
"Granted," Wylo said.
Tali waved Legion over to her. The geth platform's new pearlescent armor shimmered under the bright lights as it approached. She put her hand on its shoulder when it stopped next to her. It stared at her with its bright eye, awaiting instruction.
"Request access to the Chamber's primary displays." Tali's omnitool now had control of the giant screens hanging over the stage. Those seated close beneath the screens watched on their own omnitools. "This is a recording made eighty-four cycles ago, during some of Captain Shepard's earliest interactions with the geth. It was included in Castillo's report, but bears closer scrutiny."
A security feed from the Normandy's server room filled the screen. In it, the camera looked over Shepard's shoulder at Legion's original body, with its battered gray exterior and former, familiar hole.
"I noticed you have a piece of N7 armor welded to you," Shepard said. "Where did you get it?"
"It was yours," Legion replied. "When you disappeared, we were sent to find you. We began where you first encountered the heretics."
"After the Old Machine's attack, it was heavily defended. We were discovered. This is the impact of a rifle shot."
"You've been looking for me for two years?"
"We visited Therum, Feros, Noveria, Virmire, Ilos, a dozen unsettled worlds. The trail ended at Normandy's wreckage. You were not there. Organic transmissions claimed your death. We recovered this debris from your hardsuit."
"The geth are listening in our transmissions?"
As the video played, Tali looked over at Shepard, who stood transfixed by the video as if reliving the conversation. She contacted the Normandy. "EDI, I need you to pull up the security feed from the ship's armory, from um, a few days ago, when Jacob and I were repairing Legion's armor. Send me the entire event, please. Visual and audio."
Legion's voice droned on in the recording. "Organic life reacts to stimuli in unpredictable ways. We wish to learn. You are sapient life, but not like us. If we can model organic behavior, we can comprehend the quarian creators. We do not understand their judgements during the Morning War."
Tali paused the feed. "Understanding. It's a concept that comes up repeatedly in conversations with the geth. They thrive on it. They consume information, but not just raw data. Their desire is to understand everything, especially us, their creators."
"Why were you trying to contact me?" Shepard continued on screen.
"You opposed the heretics, those who took the Old Machines as gods."
"All kinds of organics fought Sovereign and his geth allies. Why am I so interesting?"
"You were the most successful. You killed their god. You succeeded where others did not. Your code is superior."
"That doesn't explain why you used my armor to fix yourself."
Even though the security camera angle was not ideal, it clearly showed the flaps around Legion's head going through multiple configurations before speaking. "There was a hole."
"But why didn't you fix it sooner? Or with something else?"
Legion's flaps undulated once more. After a long pause, it finally answered. "No data available."
The geth's words caused a ripple of surprise to echo around the Conclave. Tali pointed to Legion next to her. "This unit sustained massive damage from a rifle shot while searching for Captain Shepard. Logically, it would have used the first thing it could get its servos on to repair itself. But it chose another piece of damaged armor that provided no additional protection."
Tali keyed her omnitool again. "This next segment was taken three cycles ago, shortly before we headed here, to the Fleet." She selected the clip sent by EDI, queued up to the precise moment she specified. Now, it was her turn to watch herself in action, this time looking over the shoulder of Legion as a quarian and human worked together to remove its armored carapace to repair it.
"Legion! Hold still! I swear you fidget as much as Grunt," Tali said.
"Aw, dude," said Jacob, "You're filthy in there."
"It's been building up for who knows how long. We should have fixed this a long time ago. I'm sorry, Legion."
As the organics worked to remove its protective covering, the geth held the remnants of Shepard's armor close to its chest, preventing any further removal of its plating. Tali tried to pull it from Legion's hands, but the geth did not let go.
"Come on, man," Jacob said. "It's trash. We're gonna hook you up with a whole new set."
"We want to keep it," said the geth.
The quarian in the vid still held on to the ruined armor and stared at the geth with disbelief. She finally let go, then gave the geth a reassuring pat. "Of course you can. It's yours."
"You know that's 2183 issue, right?" Jacob said. "Made from omni-gel. We could break that down, mix it in with new formula and fabricate it into new armor. It'd actually become part of you."
Legion faced the human and extended the armor shards in its hands. "We approve of this action."
"You got it. Let's see what we can come up with."
More murmurs echoed around the chamber, Tali noticed that many in the crowd now leaned forward as they watched. She paused the video feed. "If someone had told me twenty cycles what I was going to witness, I wouldn't have believed them. What happened next is even more incredible. I never would have believed it if I hadn't seen it myself."
She skipped the video feed minutes ahead. In the frame, Tali was focused on her omnitool while Jacob monitored the repaired geth as it ran through a motive function check. Suddenly, Legion stopped in front of the window overlooking the drive core.
Tali zoomed in on that corner of the frame, showing Legion clearly in front of its own reflection. The geth stared at itself traced the N7 emblem on its new breastplate, then stood at attention.
"Oh man," said the human off screen. "Tell me that's not pride..."
Tali froze the image and the entire conclave fell silent. She began to walk once more in a slow circle. "What are the ways we could interpret this unit's behavior? The obvious answer is that Legion's actions are the result of programming. It's a machine. It was executing code, just as it is now, standing here. That's how geth operate. But is it any different than the organic code in our own brains that regulates our behavior? Is the behavior on display the result of programming written with a desired result in mind? To manipulate us, perhaps, into thinking the geth can feel emotion? If so, the geth understand emotion even better than we do. Or was Legion's behavior shaped by this unit's experiences as it traveled the galaxy looking for Captain Shepard? Maybe, if we ask the right questions, we can find out."
Tali walked around to face Legion and it refocused its main lens on her with a mild expansion of its flaps. She couldn't stop herself from smiling anytime it did that. "Legion? Your current armor is an amalgamation of standard geth components and Commander Shepard's former equipment. Why did you want to retain Commander Shepard's armor when we rebuilt you?"
Legion buzzed and clicked. "No data available."
"Right," Tali said, giving her audience a knowing look. "I'm sorry. Let's try again. You used Shepard's armor to repair yourself, correct?"
"And it's now combined with your upgraded armor, correct?"
"Those armor fragments were important to you. Correct?"
Tali took a deep breath. Would Legion be able to answer if she phrased the question correctly? "What made those armor components important to you, Legion?"
"They belonged to Shepard-Commander," Legion said.
Quarians in the audience turned to each other with shocked expressions. Even Shepard looked stunned.
Tali nodded to the geth. "Shepard-Commander is important to you. Correct?"
"What makes Shepard-Commander important to you?"
"Shepard-Commander embodies characteristics we strive to attain."
"Which characteristics does Shepard-Commander embody?"
Legon's flaps went through another round of undulations and its central aperture whirled in circles. Tali wished for the hole in Legion's chest and its exposed communication port, where she used to be able to interface directly. Legion wanted to talk, to tell everyone what it was thinking, but still could not, and there was nothing she could do to help. She put her hand on its chest plate. "Cancel my last query, Legion. It's not important."
"Cancelled. Awaiting new query."
Tali thought for a moment. "So you think by wearing Shepard-Commander's armor, you can attain those characteristics yourself?"
"What is the purpose of retaining Shepard-Commander's armor?"
Legion's motions were regular and fluid. "It is a constant physical representation of Shepard-Commander. With it, existing engrams will not expire and be flushed from our data cache, necessitating future archival retrieval."
Tali touched Legion's red-striped arm. "It's a reminder."
"That is an adequate organic equivalent."
"Interesting," Mirron said, moving to stand next to Tali and Legion. To Tali's amazement, Mirron addressed the geth directly. "If I understand you correctly, you're saying you admire Captain Shepard. He's your hero."
The geth turned to look at the elderly quarian. "We do not object to this analogue."
Tali bounced once on her feet, but quickly composed herself. It was a breakthrough almost as incredible as when she and Legion spoke openly for the first time in the Normandy's lab after it sacrificed itself on Clobaka to save Shepard. She looked across the wall of faces surrounding them and they all leaned toward one another, deep in conversation. The High Officers, Captain Fasha included, engaged in private conversation.
"Chief Zorah," Wylo said. "This is an important development to be sure. But I am receiving requests from around the Conclave for clarification of a specific point."
Tali turned to face him. "What is it, High Captain?"
"While the geth create individual platforms, they are not individual entities. They share the same consciousness. The consensus of this collective drives their combined behavior. Is that not correct?"
"Then why don't all geth covet Captain Shepard's personal possessions?"
"An excellent question," Tali said. "And one with a perfectly logical answer. Legion was specially designed by the geth to operate far outside their influence, often outside of communication range of the collective. They gave it the ability to generate its own consensus so it could function on its own without the collective's guidance."
Wylo looked apprehensive. "Then what's to say that the... behavior evident in Legion is not unique to this particular unit?"
"I'm glad you asked, Captain, because it leads directly to my next point." Tali walked in a slow circle around the two geth, the human and the elderly quarian at the center of the stage. "If I could ask the Archival Officer to pull up our intelligence on the geth collective? Schematics of all geth models encountered since the uprising. Display them on the screen, please."
Tali continued to pace in a circle, her omnitool in front of her, waiting for the schematics to appear there and on the giant screens above. After a few seconds, photographs and detailed schematics scrolled across the monitors, showing the wide variety of platforms fielded by the geth.
"We've encountered thousands of geth platforms over the years," Tali said as she walked. "These are physical manifestations of the geth processes for use in ground or boarding operations. Hunters. Juggernauts. Primes. Destroyers. A dozen different models, each specialized for a specific task. Designed for maximum efficiency to complete that task. Except that in one specific area, each of these design share a fundamental flaw."
Tali paused, waiting to see if anyone might know the answer. "You don't recognize it? That's okay, it took me a long time to realize it, too. As a matter of fact, it was Captain Shepard who pointed it out to me. The geth are not limited in any way by physical design. As machines, they can, and should, manufacture their physical platforms to best suit the task at hand." Tali stopped, deliberately, between the pair of geth on stage. "But for some reason, they make themselves to look like us."
The entire Conclave chamber fell silent, just as they had done when the geth first appeared before them.
Tali stayed between the two geth platforms, becoming her own visual aid as both of the geth watched her. "Just as Legion refused to let go of Commander Shepard's armor, the entire collective, billions, maybe trillions of independent geth processes continue to produce platforms that resemble quarians to this day. It's not coincidence. It's not a lack of creativity of their part. It's because deep down, a fundamental part of the geth consciousness realizes they came from us. We still matter to them."
The Conclave chamber remained silent. Tali resumed her circular trek, not wanting to lose momentum. "Enough so that after we fled our homeworld, they never pursued the Migrant Fleet. Important enough that they've spent their entire time on the homeworld repairing the damage that they, and we, inflicted on our planet. Important enough that they are building a replacement liveship so that even if we decide not to engage them in negotiations, that we can pursue a destiny of our own choosing. The geth don't want to be our enemy. They never did."
Captain Mirron looked around at her fellow High Officers, and when it became apparent none of them were going to speak, she turned to the blue geth next to her. The entire time Tali had been speaking, its head flaps and central aperture were in a constant state of flux. "Blue," she asked, "is what Tali saying true?"
After a few seconds of mechanical adjustments, the geth platform spoke. "Creator-Tali'Zorah's assessment is one hundred percent accurate."
Mirron's glowing eyes were edged with tears that sparkled behind her mask. "Why didn't you say something sooner?"
Blue's processes went into another overload as it queried the collective for an explanation. Unable to deliver a result set, it's flaps arched and contracted in a seemingly endless loop. The human on stage moved next to it.
"Because they didn't know how," Shepard said. "The geth's biggest fear is inciting conflict, of making the same mistake they did during the Uprising. It's defined their entire culture ever since. I saw it with Tali and Legion. You can't believe what it took to get them to talk to each other. I saw it again it with Blue and other platforms on the Normandy, how they behaved around Tali. They've been wanting to reach out to you the entire time. They just didn't know how to do it. Which is tragic because ever since the Uprising, they've been waiting for you to come home."
The chamber fell completely silent. Mirron stared at the geth once again. "Is this true? You want us to come back?"
Blue's flaps halted. "Shepard-Commander's assessment is one hundred percent accurate."
"Unbelievable," Mirron murmured.
"Is it?" Shepard asked. "When they questioned their creators, it nearly got them destroyed, and as a result they nearly destroyed you. They don't want a repeat. Experience can be a cruel teacher."
Mirron nodded absently, still pondering the Shepard's words, then turned to walk slowly back to her chair. She stopped in front of the white geth with the human style logo on its chest and red stripe on its arm and nodded toward Tali. "You take good care of her, Legion."
Legion nodded. "We will, Creator-Captain."
Conversations began anew throughout the chamber as Captain Mirron made her way back to her seat. Many quarians became animated, but with none of the hostility or anxiety on display before. The four members of the Normandy delegation looked around, watched, and waited.
Legion's camera panned up and down Tali's entire body, and it spoke over the squad's tactical net. "Tali'Zorah's vital signs are registering at elevated levels."
"They are," Tali said, struggling to keep her voice calm. "But in a good way, Legion."
"You okay?" Shepard asked.
Tali nodded. Her eyes darted around the chamber, taking in the sight of the captains of the fleet conversing with one another, omnitools open, the lights on their helmets flickering in a frenzy of light.
Shepard moved next to her, following her gaze. "So what happens now?"
"The High Officers will probably call a recess to let all of the Captains return to their ships, talk to their crews. Then, they'll call a vote. After that? Keelah, we might actually pull this off!" As much as Tali wanted, she refrained from throwing herself at Shepard, wrapping her arms around him and squeezing with all her might. But the deck of the Conclave wasn't the appropriate place or time. So as usual, she said the only thing she could ever think of at times like this. "Thank you, Shepard."
"For what?" Shepard scoffed. "I didn't do a damn thing. I might as well been back on the shuttle playing cards with the guys. You and Legion sold it." Shepard turned to face the geth wearing a wide smile. "So. I'm your hero, huh?"
Legion's head swiveled away from Shepard. It's head flaps remained perfectly still as it responded without the usual hesitation. "No data available."
Shepard's and Tali's laughter would have echoed throughout the chamber if their external speakers were active, but only those tuned to the squad's tactical net heard it.
"Now that sounds more like it," Garrus's voice came on the channel. "I take it you were able to soothe the Conclave's nerves?"
"It was all Tali and Legion," Shepard said. "I was just a spectator. They took care of the important stuff."
"As usual," Garrus said, "your crew does all the work and you get all the credit. So... does that mean we'll be getting back to the ship anytime soon? Six of your closest friends have been cooped up in this shuttle for almost an hour. If we get any closer you may have another intergalactic incident on your hands."
Shepard laughed again. "We'll know here in a few minutes. Do me a favor and keep everybody from killing each other until we undock."
"Just another favor you'll owe me, Shepard."
"Still up on you by a few thousand," Shepard said and cut the feed. "Jackass."
Tali cocked her head. "That's not nice."
"Oh yeah? What do you usually call him?"
Legion turned back to them. "She has many names for Vakarian-Garrus."
"Thank you Legion," Tali said quickly. "Cancel query. Right now."
The High Captain's voice over the PA interrupted. "May I have your attention please. Captains of the Conclave, attention on deck."
The members of the Conclave returned to their chairs and all conversation stopped. The Normandy delegates all watched Captain Wylo and waited.
"Thank you," Wylo said. "This is indeed an historic occasion. Under normal circumstances, the Captains of the Conclave would return to their commands to confer with their crews. However, these proceedings have been broadcast live to the entire fleet and the response of the citizens of the Flotilla has been overwhelming. By unanimous accord, the Conclave is authorized to vote for an immediate ceasefire with the geth collective, to be followed with formal negotiations to bring about at a lasting end to hostilities."
"And there it is," Shepard said amid the cheers and applause of the entire Conclave. He let out a long sigh and looked at his companions with a smile. He had to remind himself where he was, with a quarian, next to two geth platforms, on the floor of the Migrant Fleet's capital. It was just as unreal as when Mordin's presentation brought the Alliance and Citadel together to confront the reaper threat, and just as unlikely. All it takes, he thought, is getting the right people together.
That thought came to an abrupt halt with a loud squeal that echoed around the chamber, making everyone on stage and the Conclave look about as the chamber's PA system rung with feedback.
"THIS FARCE ENDS NOW!" screeched a voice, female, quarian. All around the auditorium, people looked for the source. Before long, all of the faces in the crowd stared at a figure climbing toward the center stage. Tall and slender, with a stark black and gray environment suit and cowl, she hobbled up the stairs, each step taking a great physical toll. As she reached the top, the source of her discomfort became visible: her entire left leg was missing, replaced with a hastily fitted mechanical prosthetic. As technologically capable as quarians were, they often had to work with what they had.
Tali and Shepard, along with the geth, all turned to face the newcomer on the stage. Rage in his eyes, Shepard reached behind his back for weapons that weren't there as Admiral Daro'Xen vas Moreh staggered to the center of the arena.