Even having seen the Migrant Fleet before, the sea of ships was a shock. They were clustered together at the very outer edges of the Tikkun system, slim frigates and fighters holding a perimeter, cruisers lurking behind. Further back still were the civilian ships that made up the bulk of the Fleet, huddled behind the protective line of the warships. But even those bristled with guns. Far away, towards the center of the system, the Normandy's scanners could pick out the thermal signatures of another fleet, ships cooler and dimmer than the quarian Fleet, but broadly similar in profile. Side by side, the similarities between geth and quarian designs were obvious.
"Take a look at that," murmured Garrus, nodding towards the central knot of civilian ships. "They went through with it."
Shepard looked, and cursed. He was right. Two of the liveships at the center of the group bore cannons with barrels easily twice the length of the Normandy.
"Hell of a welcoming committee," she muttered.
"You bring us to the nicest places, Commander," sing-songed Joker under his breath.
"Let them know we're coming," she said. "Let's see just how welcoming they are."
"Aye, aye, ma'am." He opened the channel. Before he could speak, a female voice with the characteristic modulation of an environmental suit transducer came in.
"Incoming vessel, identify yourself."
"This is Alliance frigate Normandy SR-2. We have two Council Spectres aboard on business with the Admiralty Board."
"Acknowledged. Maintain position. Do not approach without further instruction."
Joker leaned back. "Friendly bunch."
"It is a reasonable precaution," said EDI, from the copilot's chair.
"What are we gonna do? Fight all of them at once?"
The channel clicked open again. "Normandy, you are expected. Proceed to liveship Raleel, coordinates 242.065, 338.099, 157.458, Dock 87. A quarantine and decontamination team will meet you on disembarkation."
"Well," said Garrus, sarcastically casual, "Let's not keep them waiting."
Decontamination was efficient and thorough. It was a little strange to walk around the ship fully suited up. She felt ill at ease and strangely disconnected. She supposed Garrus was more used to it, given the turian military custom of wearing armor at all times while on duty, but even he left his helmet off. There had been no need to bring a large team with them for what amounted to a diplomatic mission, and the fewer people they had, the faster it was to get through decontamination, so it was just her and him.
It gave her a disquieting sense of déjà vu; the last time they'd gone through this, Tali had been with them, a small, silent figure wound taut with nerves. Shepard was keenly aware of the empty spot at her left.
A quarian man, built tall and rangy and flanked by a pair of guards, met them at the exit of the clean room.
"Captain Shepard, Spectre Vakarian. Welcome. I am Alin'Taal vas Raleel, the captain of this ship. If you'll follow me, I'll take you to the Admiralty Board."
She glanced over towards Garrus, but his face was unreadable behind the faceplate of his helmet. "Lead the way."
As they walked through the ship's tight corridors, she clicked on her comm to the closed channel between herself and Garrus. "I don't like this."
"Me neither," he muttered. "Where's Tali? It's not like her to miss out on the welcoming committee."
She frowned uneasily. "Yeah."
At length, they reached a small room, much different from the atrium where they'd first met the Admiralty Board. Despite the ample lighting and careful layout, it felt cramped and dark from the presence of so many people. The Admiralty Board themselves were seated on a dais behind a long table. She and Garrus were clearly expected to stand below and make their case, and she felt a momentary flash of irritation at the arrangement. In addition to the Admiralty Board members, a small number of other people flanked the walls, Tali among them, she saw to her vast relief.
Before she could speak, Shala'Raan stood from the Admirals' table. "Spectres. It's rare that we get repeat visitors to the Fleet. To what do we owe the pleasure?"
They'd planned this out. Shepard had made an impression at Tali's trial, and the Admirals would remember her. They would expect her to be aggressive and straightforward, and that's what she would do. While she focused on making the argument, Garrus would watch the room for reactions.
"Admiral Raan. We sent information to you several months ago through Tali'Zorah vas Normandy. The galaxy is currently facing a serious threat."
Gerrel snorted. "You mean that Reaper business that's got the Council all twisted in on itself? Load of nonsense."
Tali stepped forward from the sidelines, and the other quarians in the room turned to look at her. "It's hardly nonsense," she bit off sharply. "The Admiralty Board saw the evidence. You know it's true."
"Evidence which mysteriously vanished after only one viewing," remarked Xen lazily.
Tali's hands curled into fists at her sides, but her voice remained even. "I gave you the files from my backup."
"You're very bold for a woman recently accused of treason. One wonders how those files would compare to the originals."
Tali stiffened, and a murmur ran through the room.
Shepard felt a flare of irritation and moved to step forward, but before she could, Garrus' voice came in over the comm.
He didn't say anything more, and she wished she could see his face to get a read on what he was thinking, but she kept her peace for the moment.
Tali drew herself up to her full height. "I am not a traitor. The Board has asked for my expertise with synthetics and I will deliver it. The Reapers are a genuine threat."
"Enough, Xen," said Raan sharply. "Tali'Zorah was acquitted of all charges. The loss of the original files was unfortunate, but clearly accidental."
Now Shepard did step forward. "We have the same files Tali was carrying. I can forward them to you right now if you want to compare them, but you won't find anything different. The Reapers are coming, and the rest of the galaxy is preparing to meet them."
Gerrel leaned back, crossing his arms. "Even if they are coming, it's no concern of ours. The Council can deal with their own business. We have more pressing concerns of our own."
"We did wonder about that," interjected Garrus, so smoothly and evenly that it might almost be mistaken for a friendly comment.
Gerrel leaned forward again, and beneath the tint of his faceplate, she could see his eyes narrow. "Our people have waited centuries for this. We are on the brink of coming home."
Koris spoke for the first time. "It's not decided yet, Gerrel. Not everyone is so eager to fight your senseless war." He shifted to look directly at Shepard. "But neither are we eager to fight a senseless war for the Council."
"And we're not asking you to," she retorted. "We need the Fleet's technical expertise."
"Our expertise?" remarked Xen. "The Council has encountered a technical problem so insurmountable that they're willing to beg at the Migrant Fleet's doors? That is a change."
"And I suppose we're expected to fix their problems out of the goodness of our hearts?" scoffed Gerrel. "The Council hasn't done us any favors lately."
"I cleared the Alarei of geth for you," returned Shepard.
Koris waved a hand dismissively. "That action had nothing to do with the Council and everything to do with your association with Tali'Zorah. The Council would have deemed it a matter for the Fleet to handle and would have imposed further sanctions if we'd failed to contain the threat."
"Indeed," said Raan. "The Council must be truly desperate if they are willing to turn to us for aid. What, precisely, do they require?"
Shepard swept a glance across the room, taking in the small crowd of strangers hanging on their every word. "With all due respect, Admirals, this isn't something that should be discussed publicly."
There was a tense moment as the Admirals conferred, and then Raan nodded.
"Very well. Tali'Zorah stay behind. All others are dismissed."
Shepard wondered at that exception, but wasn't about to question it. The room emptied in a murmur of voices, and soon they were alone but for the Board and Tali.
"Well?" said Koris. "What does the Council require that can't be said in public?"
Shepard looked at each of them in turn, trying to find their eyes behind their helmets. "We're aware that the Fleet has some understanding of how the mass relays operate." She thought Raan and Koris might have tensed at that, but quarians were always difficult to read. Xen and Gerrel were still and apparently unconcerned. Tali stood straight, but she knew her well enough to catch the lift of her shoulders. She took a breath and pressed on. "We want to know how to sabotage one."
There was an instant of such quiet that she could clearly hear the throb of the ship's engines and the whine of the room's ventilation fans, and then the room exploded into noise, as all the Admirals tried to speak at once.
"Sabotage a relay?"
"...incredibly dangerous proposition."
"...allow the Council unprecedented control of the relay network..."
...dangerous and irresponsible avenue of research."
After a moment, the cacophony died down. Raan spoke first.
"The relays are too vital to galactic civilization to weaponize. Even if it could be done, we'd be fools to give the Council powers that kind of technology."
"Desperate times call for desperate measures," she responded grimly. "I know the Fleet is insular, but you haven't survived this long by hiding under a rock. You saw the files Tali brought back. You know what's coming. I don't doubt you know what's going on in the Hegemony right now. The Reapers are coming, and they won't stop with the Council. They'll come for you too, no matter where you go."
Gerrel snorted. "So we should give up our chance to reclaim our homeworld for some nebulous threat a half a galaxy away?"
She took a step forward, putting her right up in front of the Admirals' table. She had to look up at them a little, but Shepard was a tall woman, and it wasn't by much. Deliberately, she turned to face Gerrel. "Maybe you'll take back Rannoch. Maybe you'll even have time to settle on it before they come. But all it's going to mean is that you'll have a home for them to burn. We can hit them hard at the first relay they cross, and maybe they won't ever get that far. Or you can wait and hope that it takes them a long time to tear through the rest of us."
The Admirals visibly stiffened, and she felt a brief, vicious shock of satisfaction. She could see Gerrel working up the bluster for a retort, but before he could let it fly, Garrus spoke up.
"The Council powers depend on the relays as much as the Fleet does. We don't want the relay damaged or destroyed. We just want it temporarily incapacitated. Rerouted, maybe. If you develop the technology, you can build in your own back doors, if you're that worried about it being used for the wrong ends."
There was a sullen silence before Xen spoke up. "Even if such a project were politically advisable, the technical obstacles are nontrivial."
Tali hesitated and glanced over to the Admirals' table. "May I explain?"
"Please do," said Raan.
"When a ship hails a relay, normally, it must transmit its exact heading, its exact mass, and the command to jump. Fleet ships insert a small string of code before the jump command. The jump proceeds as normal, but the characteristic burst of radiation the relay emits is slightly redshifted outside the normal bandwidth of relay operations. Most sensors are not looking for relay transmissions in that spectrum, so we are able to jump without being detected." She shook her head. "It was an accidental discovery. It's given us some insight into the relay command structure and operation, but we don't truly understand how it works."
"What if you had an example to work from?" She redirected her attention to the Admirals. "You know that the Normandy is equipped with an IFF device which allowed it to successfully navigate the Omega-4 relay. If we allowed your engineers access to it, could you provide a solution?"
"It is… possible," said Xen, slowly. "A working relay interface device would answer many questions."
"We shouldn't be wasting time on this," interjected Gerrel. "The very idea is dangerous. If the relays can be interfered with, it will irrevocably alter the nature of galactic conflict. A distant threat to a part of the galaxy that's never welcomed us isn't worth the risk."
"But what if they're right, Gerrel?" said Koris bitterly. "You're so focused on war with the geth that you refuse to see other options. Suppose we take back Rannoch. We'll lose people in that fight, and it will be decades before we can truly live on the homeworld. You saw those vids like the rest of us did. If that comes calling for us, we won't be any match for it."
"You're a coward and an apologist, Koris. You're jumping at shadows, looking for an excuse to crawl away with your tail between your legs."
"Enough!" said Raan, with enough steel in her voice to silence the room. She stood and faced them. "We will consider your proposal, although we cannot promise a quick answer with the situation as it is. The Normandy may remain with the Fleet while we come to a decision."
Shepard felt her lips tighten into a thin line, and was glad that she was wearing a helmet. "Thank you, Admirals."
"Shepard, Garrus. I'm so glad to see you!" Tali's voice was tired, but warm. "I wish it were under better circumstances."
They'd finally made it to Tali's private quarters to talk. That in and of itself was a surprise - space was at a premium on the Migrant Fleet. The room was perhaps a quarter of the size of Shepard's cabin. One side held a table folded out from the wall and littered with small bits of machinery. The other wall held the outline of a fold-out bunk. The sparse, utilitarian nature of the space was softened by bright colors and soft fabrics - a green and yellow scarf draped over the table under the parts, a coppery-toned wall hanging with a look of age placed over it. The room was tiny and cramped, but the fact that Tali had it all to herself spoke volumes about her current social status. It was a sharp contrast from the last time Tali had returned to the Fleet.
Still, Shepard felt her face stretch into a relieved smile as she returned Tali's embrace. "It's good to see you too, Tali."
Garrus had propped himself up against a bulkhead. "How's life back in the Fleet treating you, Tali? Nice and quiet? I bet that shotgun's starting to rust." Shepard could tell by his voice that he was wearing his most obnoxious grin.
Tali sniffed and drew herself up. "I save the shotgun for smart-mouthed turian bosh'tets with poorly developed survival instincts." For a moment, the bravado held, and then her shoulders slumped and she glanced away. "But, no. It hasn't been. Nice and quiet, I mean."
Are you all right?"asked Shepard.
"We were starting to get worried," added Garrus, his voice serious now.
Tali stepped back and clasped her hands together, a nervous gesture she'd had as long as Shepard had known her.
"It's been difficult. Things have become complicated."
She and Garrus exchanged a quick glance over Tali's head. "What's going on?" she asked.
"When I came back to the fleet, I turned those files over to the Admiralty Board," Tali said. "I know they saw them. They brought me in afterwards to answer questions on the geth and the Reapers."
"What kind of questions?"
"They wanted to know about the geth that sided with Sovereign. The heretics. A schism in the geth consensus is a new development, something no one thought could happen. They wanted to know everything we learned about the geth."
"So they're not as clueless as they're making themselves out to be, then," said Garrus.
Tali shook her head. "I think they take the Reapers seriously because the geth took them seriously. That's the threat they see – that the geth will ally themselves with the Reapers again."
"Xen said the files disappeared," said Garrus. His head was cocked to the side in the way he had when he was chasing an idea.
Tali glanced away, her shoulders curling in on themselves. "I don't think it's coincidence." On the next sentence, her voice hitched a little, quietly. "The Board needs to select a new Admiral to take my father's place. My name has come up."
Shepard felt a brief, helpless stab of sympathy. "I'm sorry, Tali."
Tali came back to herself with a quick shake of her head. "Don't be. There was nothing you could have done." Some of the sorrow lingered in her voice, but the words were brisk and clear.
"You think someone was trying to discredit you by erasing the files?" asked Garrus after a minute.
Tali took a deep breath and straightened back up to look at them. "I'd never be considered for a Board position under other circumstances. I'm far too young. And even if I had the experience, the trial and the fact that I'm crew on the Normandy, not a Fleet ship, would normally rule me out. But they need a full Board before a decision can be reached on war with the geth, and I have experience with the geth and the Reapers that no one else in the Fleet does. If I am selected, it will not be a popular decision." She tilted her head up and to the side a little, voice turning acerbic. "I think the Admirals are trying to feel me out, to see whether I can be persuaded to take one side or another."
"Which side would you take?" asked Shepard curiously.
"I've seen what you've seen, Shepard. This war is a stupid idea. The geth aren't the real enemy. We shouldn't be fighting them."
"Huh. Never thought I'd hear you say that," said Garrus.
"Things have changed." She paused, and Shepard got the feeling she was gauging them. "What you said to the Board. Is the Council really trying to sabotage a relay?"
"That's the idea."
Tali shifted her weight uneasily from side-to-side. "I know our options are limited, but such a drastic measure…"
"We can't fight off a whole fleet like Sovereign," said Garrus, his voice tired. "We don't have the time or the resources. Believe me, I know. Maybe if we'd started preparing for this three years ago, we'd have a shot. But now…" He shook his head. "Now we need something up our sleeve. Something that will change the game. If we can wipe out their initial push, we might stand a chance."
"I understand. I still don't like it."
There was a heavy pause before Shepard spoke again. "Why choose now to go to war with the geth?"
Tali crossed her arms. "Officially, there's been a technical breakthrough. The geth depend on detailed LADAR scans to sense their environment. Xen's department found a way to scramble it. It would allow us to take the geth by surprise." She hesitated a moment before continuing. "But I think the real reason is that the Board wants to eliminate the geth before they can side with the Reapers again, while the Council is otherwise occupied."
Shepard grimaced. "Can't say I'm surprised. Make it a quick, devastating strike and bank on winning the war before the Council can turn around and hand out the wrist slaps."
"Makes sense," said Garrus. He tilted his head curiously, looking down at Tali. "Why the secrecy, though?" Tali crossed her arms and leaned back and he hastily raised his hands. "I know you couldn't give us information on the Admiralty's plans. But why the radio silence?"
"As a candidate for Admiral, I'm under close scrutiny. Closer even than candidates usually face, with the war and my background. And when those files disappeared…." Tali's shoulders lifted helplessly. "I didn't want to give anyone a reason to check my messages."
Shepard exchanged a puzzled glance with Garrus while Tali lifted her arm and fiddled a moment with her omni-tool. A moment later, the display was enlarged to show a list of messages. They stepped in closer to take a look.
All were marked as originating from Unknown Sender, Unknown Extranet Domain. The subject line of the first read:
Creator Tali'Zorah: We wish to exchange information.
Her breath caught. "Is this what I think it is?"
Tali's voice was quiet, and very serious. "It's all encrypted, of course. But…"
"Of course." She couldn't remember the last time she'd been so stunned. The risk Tali was taking was enormous.
"How did that happen?" asked Garrus, the subtones of his voice reverberating with surprise.
"On the Normandy, EDI was… not what I expected," Tali admitted softly. "And neither was Legion. What it said about the war with the geth made me wonder. No one had spoken to the geth in centuries. I suppose I was curious."
"Curious, huh?" echoed Shepard softly. It made her think of Tali as she'd been when she first met her, young and eager to learn and fearless in the pursuit of knowledge.
"Well," said Garrus, "we all have our flaws." For all that the words were teasing, he said them gently.
"Some of us more than others," returned Tali, with an audible smile. For a moment, things were returned to a familiar, comfortable balance. Then, Tali straightened up and her demeanor became serious once more. She scrolled up the list of messages to the most recent.
"This one came today," she said, and looked straight at Shepard. "It's addressed to you."
We require your assistance. The Old Machines have offered an alliance.
Please contact secure channel ECR-548.998 within two standard days of receipt of this message to arrange a rendezvous. Creator Tali'Zorah can provide the encryption key.
They headed back to the Normandy to confer, quiet and uneasy. They'd been offered temporary quarters on the Raleel as a courtesy, which would have saved them the trouble of going through decontamination again, but the necessity of being suited up at all times and the uncertain security negated any potential convenience.
A hot shower eased a multitude of ills, and Shepard was glad to let the heat and white noise tamp down her growing worries over the situation for a few minutes. Garrus was already waiting on her couch when she emerged, dressed in civvies for once, the collar of his shirt a little damp with the remains of his own shower.
"You're all dressed down."
"Oh." He looked down at himself, and his mandibles gave a twitch. "Place like that kind of reminds you how nice it is not to have to wear a hardsuit."
She grimaced. "Know what you mean." The cramped spaces and painstaking sterilization procedures on the quarian ships were stifling. Once again, she wondered what it must have been like for Tali to grow up like that.
She leaned back with a sigh and changed the topic. "Let's start from the beginning. What did you get out of there?"
Garrus gave a thoughtful hum and began to tick off points on his fingers. "Hard to tell with quarians, but the Board is nervous. I don't think they're as eager to engage the geth as they seem - somebody jumped the gun by ordering the Fleet out here and now they're trying to save face by bluffing. It's clear where Gerrel and Koris stand, but Raan and Xen are keeping their own counsel. Neither of them took their eyes off the other two."
"What did you make of Xen? Last time we were here, she couldn't have cared less about the charges against Tali."
"Think Tali's right – they were trying to get a rise out of her, maybe get a feel for which way she'd jump. Either that, or Xen's just trying to stir the pot and see what comes to the surface."
Shepard scowled. "Worse than the damned Council."
Garrus snorted half a laugh, and she elbowed him. "Go ahead, laugh it up, smart-ass. They're your problem too, now."
The moment of levity did her good though, broke the frustration that had been building up in her, leaving only wry sort of resignation behind. After a moment, she sighed and turned to look at him. "What do you think? What are the odds they're going to help us out and come up with a relay booby trap they'd be willing to share?"
He returned her gaze evenly, his voice calm and light. "Not a chance."
"I was afraid of that."
"Thing is, they're not wrong," he said, his voice turning serious. "A device that can interfere with relay operation is a game-changer." He shook his head. "It's sound tactics. Maybe the only viable tactic for this situation. But in any other circumstances…"
Shepard let out a breath. "Yeah. I hear you. It might be the nuclear arms race all over again." She shot him a glance. "Did you guys have one of those?"
"Think everybody had one of those." His mandibles were pulled tightly in against his face, in the way that meant tension or discomfort.
She hesitated a second. "You ever think this might not be on the up-and-up?"
He considered that in silence before letting a slow hiss out through his teeth. "Dangerous question, Shepard," he said quietly.
"It's a drastic step. It seems like it should have spent more time in committee."
They were both quiet a moment, and then Garrus made a frustrated subtonal rumble. "Doesn't matter. It's still the best shot we have."
"Yeah. No argument there. We need to get the Board to reconsider." She frowned. "But with things as they are, I don't think we have the leverage. Maybe we could get the Council to offer them privileges of some kind. But if they're counting on the Council being occupied with the invasion..."
"Council space privileges aren't going to mean squat to them," finished Garrus. "They're focused on Rannoch. They're just going to brush anything we say off as long as the geth are between them and the homeworld."
Her lips tightened. "And that's a whole other mess," she said grimly. "Might not just be geth out there if that message from Legion is anything to go by."
"You think there's an actual Reaper presence here? Or have they just made contact with the geth network?"
"I think if there were an actual Reaper in the system, we'd know it by now," she replied grimly.
He grimaced. "Fair enough. Though I can't say I like the idea of the Reapers having access to geth networks much either."
"We know the geth can be hacked. That virus the heretics wrote," she said slowly, thinking, and then shook her head. "Probably not. Why would they need to be subtle here?"
Garrus smiled, without much real humor. "At least they're willing to talk. That puts them one step ahead of the Admiralty Board."
She ran a hand through her hair. "We're going to have to talk to them. Any information on the Reapers has to take precedence."
Garrus was quiet a moment, watching her inscrutably. Then, his mandibles worked up and down once. "No. You're going to have to talk to them. The geth are interested in you specifically."
Shepard blinked, having come to the same conclusion, but startled that Garrus was the one to voice it first.
"And someone's going to need to stay here and keep pressure on the Board," she finished.
For a moment, they stared at each other. Garrus' eyes were wide and startled, and she thought her expression was probably much the same. She felt unbalanced, as if she were picking her way across unsteady ground.
At last, she gave him a crooked smile. "Part of the job, Vakarian."
With a sigh, he leaned back against the couch. "I know," he groused. "Still don't like it. What do the geth want to rendezvous for? Why not talk over the comms if they've got a secure channel set up?"
"Good question," she said slowly. "It's not as if they get anything out of a face-to-face meeting."
"Could be a trap."
"Could be." She frowned, and shook her head. "But why bother? What does it gain them? They've got the quarian armada sitting right in front of them. Why waste time and resources on taking me out?"
"Harbinger thought you were worth taking out."
"Maybe. But nobody else was doing anything about the Reapers then. I could die tomorrow, and the Hierarchy and the Alliance would still be preparing for war."
There was a beat of quiet, and then Garrus said, very dryly, "Please. Don't."
The fact of her death still caught her unawares sometimes. Wordlessly, she sought out his hand and clasped it tight, a silent apology.
She sighed after a moment. "I don't like it either. It's a risk. And if the Fleet catches on to communications between us and the geth, it's going to turn ugly fast. But we can't ignore it if the Reapers are involved."
"I know," said Garrus. He paused a moment, thinking. "Take EDI with you."
She raised an eyebrow. "Thought her new body creeped you out."
He shrugged. "It does a little. It's one thing to know there's an AI on the ship. It's another to meet it in the hallway on your way to the mess. But she's an ally. And maybe an AI can pick up something about the situation with the geth that we'd miss."
"It's a good thought," she said. "You take some backup too. Another set of eyes at least."
"Good choice." She sent him a thin edge of a grin. "If you want a challenge, take Javik too. See how well he'll take orders somewhere he can't do any real damage. Maybe if we're lucky he'll shock the Board into listening."
Garrus snorted. "I'll think about it." He paused, measuring her. "If we're playing it that way, you should think about taking Williams."
Shepard sat back, startled for the second time in the conversation. "What brought that on?"
"She wants to trust you. But I don't think she's going to be able to do it unless you prove you trust her first."
She let out a quiet breath. "Take a big risk and bring her in on it, huh?" She took a long look at Garrus, suddenly seeing him in a new light. They'd discussed missions and tactics many times before, but never personnel decisions. Never leadership decisions. It set her to thinking about that dossier again, and the words, "leadership potential overshadowed by Shepard." And it set her to thinking about Omega.
"All right," she said. "I'll think about it."
AN: Thanks to Cadmos and servantofclio for beta-reading.