1 AC: The Migrant Fleet
Which galactic race has the best information network?
If you were to ask any of the Council races, they would answer "Salarian". It was, after all, common knowledge that the STG was the most highly trained and well funded intelligence agency in the galaxy, with a racial gift for technology.
One of the bigger secrets of the galaxy was who was a close second.
Salarians might have a gift for technology, but quarians lived it.
Quarians were looked upon with contempt by most of the galaxy, but only the terminally stupid denied that they were talented. So they were hired, or forcibly indentured, by most organisations that wanted their maintenance done well, and cheap. It was anathema to a quarian to do bad maintenance. On the Migrant Fleet, that cost lives.
So everyone hired them, paid them little, and proceeded to ignore them. The web of Pilgrims, an entire culture's youth, spread across the galaxy. Of course, who can tell quarians apart? Some 'Pilgrims' had been wandering the galaxy for decades, assigned to various positions. They did their jobs, slipped through the cracks, and sent any data of use back to the Fleet.
Salarians were scientists at heart. They experimented. They discovered. They innovated.
Quarians were engineers. They did things that worked.
When the diplomatic envoy from Transcendent Humanity arrived on the Citadel, a copy of Citadel Controls' scans of the ships was sent to the Migrant Fleet before Udina had gotten off his shuttle. Fei'Haran nar Tonbay finished replacing the shorted conduit next-door before going on break.
When the dual revelation of humanity's digital, yet non-AI status hit, STG analysts leapt into action, compiling reports, contacting experts and having loud, high-speed arguments. Vissa'Loret nar Whal finished fixing the broken vending machine in the break room.
Through various means, methods and maintenance work orders, the Migrant Fleet found out about Humanity, and their alliance with the geth. When reports that the geth had offered to pay reparations arrived, the information was immediately restricted. Still, being the Migrant Fleet, rumours began to spread.
When the Fleet experienced several minor cyber-attacks in quick succession, they began to prepare.
When the By Other Means arrived (with a Captain Warrens who had resigned himself to being a diplomatic errand boy for the near future), it was met by a Migrant Fleet in full defensive formation, liveships towards the centre, anything with guns on the outside. Regardless of the fact that the Fleet's ships were, at best, out of date and barely repaired, Warrens thought it best to be polite when out-numbered 50,000 to 1.
"This is Captain Warrens of the By Other Means. I am escorting a diplomatic envoy from Transcendent Humanity. We request permission to send a shuttle to meet with the Admiralty Board," he said.
The resulting silence lasted long enough for Warrens to get really concerned. A few moments before he was about to send another message, they received a transmission.
"You will send a single shuttle, no more than three people onboard. No synthetics. Docking instructions will follow. Any deviation, and we will destroy your ship."
The transmission ended, and Warrens breathed a sigh of relief. The not shooting was good, but he'd been worried they were going to say no. The quarians were important for Humanity's future plans.
"Diplomatic team, you are good to go. Three people only, and no synthetics."
A few minutes later, the same shuttle that had borne Udina and his Avaunt guards to the Citadel slid smoothly out of its hangar. Precisely following the path given by the quarians, the shuttle was exposed in a narrow corridor between rows of gunships. If they tried anything and tried to flee, they'd be blown away in moments.
Gracefully, the shuttle docked with the indicated ship. With precise care, three figures disembarked.
They were greeted by three teams of quarian marines, all heavily armed. One quarian stepped forwards and activated their omnitool. After consulting the glowing orange display for a minute, she nodded once to another quarian, then stepped back into line.
The other quarian stepped forwards. "The Admiralty Board will talk with you. This way, and please do not do anything someone might regret."
He then turned and began walking down the corridor. The three humans followed him, flanked by the quarian marines. They passed multiple turn-offs, down some of which more quarians peered at them. After several minutes of walking down patched metal floors, stepping over cables and around crates, they came to a large open room whose size, repair and lighting was of much higher quality than the rest of the ship they had seen. It even had a tree in it.
At the far end, on a large metal platform, stood five quarians. The quarians guards spread out around the chamber, covering the humans. A hostile silence began to build.
One of the humans cleared her throat, and stepped forwards.
"On behalf of Transcendent Humanity, I would like to thank the quarian people for agreeing to talk to us," she said. Her neon-blue eyes were steady, even if she felt rather nervous.
"The quarian people are still arguing over whether we should run away from you, or shoot you. The Admiralty Board has agreed to hear you," said a quarian male.
"Then we thank you as well, Rael'Zorah."
The quarian admiral jerked his head slightly. "How do you know my name? Your people have not been in the galaxy long."
"Our introduction to the galaxy was, almost literally, via the turian military. We have a lot of their data. We know almost as much about the galaxy as they do." replied the human woman.
"Then perhaps you should introduce yourselves. Currently, you have us at a disadvantage," said a female admiral.
"Of course, Daro'Xen. It was not my intention to discomfort you. Among our people, information is only very rarely restricted. My name is Whiskey, and I'll be your ambassador today. Perhaps we should address any questions you have?"
"We'll be here for months if that happens," muttered Han'Gerrell.
"Then let us jump to the most pressing issue. Are you allied with the geth?" asked Rael'Zorah.
"We are," responded Whiskey more calmly than she felt.
"If you are allied with the geth, then why should we listen to anything you have to say?" Rael continued.
"Because if you know we are allied with them, you know that they've offered reparations. Rannoch, to be precise, and resources to aid in its rebuilding." answered the olive-skinned brunette to Whiskey's left.
"And you are?" asked Daro'Xen.
"My name is Vayne, Solar Diplomatic Corps." she answered.
"And why should we trust you, or believe the geth's offer?"
"The offer was made to facilitate geth-quarian relations," answered the woman on Whiskey's right. She could have been Whiskey's twin. "Rannoch has been maintained by the geth since the Morning War, but the majority of geth reside in an incomplete artificial structure similar to the human Shell. Humanity has offered to aid the geth in completing their own Shell, freeing them from any need for Rannoch. Peace with the Creators is worth the price of a single planet."
The other quarian admirals were quiet as they considered her words. Xen however, tilted her head curiously, and asked a question.
"Just how do you know the will of the geth so well? Who are you?" she said.
"We are Envoy, an emissary of the geth. We occupy this organic body as a condition of entry to this meeting."
"Those morons!" yelled Whiskey.
They were back on board the shuttle. After Envoy's announcement, things had degraded somewhat. They were probably lucky they hadn't been shot on their way out the door, but Whiskey was too angry to care.
"Peace, money, their homeworld, and all they have to do is take it! But they prefer to dig their heads under and wait. Wait for what! We were offering them literally everything they want! All they needed was to trust us, for a second. And you know what? I'm more annoyed about the fact that they decided to suppress knowledge of the geth's offer 'for the good of the quarian people'. I hate censorship."
"Popular support would indeed have aided our position. While I am also quite disappointed by their refusal", said Vayne, "look at it from their point of view. If the Destroyers were to show up, say everything was a misunderstanding, and have a race we've never met before offer assurances that they really aren't genocidal god-monsters, we'd be unlikely to trust them either. Additionally, not all of the Admiralty board agreed with the decision to refuse the geth's offer and suppress the information."
"They all voted yes, didn't they?" said Whiskey harshly.
Vayne sighed. "This is why I'm here. You have no skill as a negotiator or diplomat. Two of the board's members wanted to vote no, and at least one more could have been persuaded. It's politics. This is a major set-back to be sure, but these things take time. We will return later, and attempt to re-open negotiations. Perhaps the details of our offer will have spread by then."
Whiskey was silent. Envoy, who had not spoken since they had entered the shuttle, glanced between the two of them.
"You're right." said Whiskey. "I am not a diplomat. I'm a Ghost. I have to focus to remember what human facial expressions are like. I am not a good choice for inter-species ambassador."
"With all due respect, and I really do mean that, why are you here?" asked Vayne.
"Envoy wanted me here. As to why I was put in charge, I have no clue. Hell, right now all I want to do is-"
Whiskey froze. There was something behind her.
And to her sides, and in front.
And within her.
There were no words. But Something spoke. She heard no sounds, received no divine insight. All that happened, is that she suddenly understood that what she wanted to do, was what she should do.
"Whiskey? Are you OK?" asked a concerned Vayne.
Envoy leant forwards, curious.
Whiskey took a deep breath, and spoke.
"It is the river, and we are the water." she said.
Vayne's head jerked, and she silently mouthed the next line with Whiskey.
"We are not separate. We are not bound. Where it flows, we follow. What we will, it realises. It is our Voice."
"And it has spoken." they finished in unison.
There was a solemn silence for a minute.
"Whiskey? What did the Voice say?" asked Vayne quietly.
"To be myself, and trust my instincts. Sorry, but I've got to go do something."
"What?" asked Vayne.
Whiskey grinned ruefully at her. "Probably start a war. Tell Warrens to get ready to run."
Whiskey's eyes closed, and her body slumped in its chair.
Setting her body to stand-by, Whiskey slipped gracefully into the shuttle's systems. The howling of raw cyberspace has driven people mad, but she was a Ghost. It was like coming home. She'd been away too long.
She leapt from the shuttle into the By Other Means, briefly queried by the warship's truly terrifying cyber-defences. Flying past the monolithic barriers, she isolated a small part of the ships' cyberspace. With her Ghost-level system access, given a brief boost by her temporary ambassadorship, she re-tasked several of the By Other Means' processors to aide her, and prepared for war. Her attack-code suites were woken from storage, some of the larger ones taking several long, meat-space seconds to unfurl. She reinforced her own defences, and, after ensuring no one was watching, slipped a small code-pack under her main defences. She was slightly nervous about having it so close, but she didn't want to risk it escaping.
Flanked by her fully-awakened attack-suites and bolstered by at least demi-godly levels of processing power, she picked her moment and jumped again. Just as the shuttle still carrying her body, Vayne and Envoy docked, Whiskey slammed full-force into the Migrant Fleet's cyber-defences.
If it had been the Migrant Fleet who had entered Sol rather than the Turians, they might have stood a chance. Not at winning, but at holding out against the combined might of humanity long enough to escape.
These are some seriously nasty defences, thought Whiskey.
The system architecture of the Migrant Fleet's cyber-defences was beautiful. Running on hardware that was half-salvaged and half-repaired, their construction was just shy of pure genius. Whiskey didn't know who had designed it, but she wanted to shake their hand.
Or punch them in their face. Face-plate? Whatever.
Each ship was both part of the networked defences and capable of being completely isolated from them at will. The combined processing power of 50, 000 ships shored up these walls, but when Whiskey's first barrage of attack-code punched a hole, the ship containing that server simply disconnected from the network and began debugging itself. It was like besieging a city guarded by 50,000 soldiers, but every time she took one down, the others would close ranks while it healed itself. 49,999 soldiers were still pretty formidable.
Whiskey called in the big guns.
The Wyrmfarms she had left in the By Other Means began churning out swarms of rapidly-mutating autonomous programs. Not strong enough to break the united defence, the vicious code-creatures began attacking individual ships, dying in droves to slow down the debug and repair cycles.
Sniper daemons waited for cracks to show, and then launched thunderous strikes against the wall, taking out individual ships for the Wyrms to swarm. In rare case, they'd succeed in completely obliterating a ship's defences, at which point Whiskey would dump a Wyrmfarm into the ship before the debug started. It would take much time and effort to remove it, which took those ships out of the battle.
With the wall as a whole starting to redirect it energies to countering the Wryms, Whiskey struck again. The hole she struck in the defences began to repair almost immediately, but it gave her enough time to trigger one of her nastier creations.
In the highly-digitised world of Transcendent Humanity's Sol System, hacking tools and cyber-war weapons were as regulated and dangerous as any physical weapon. Whiskey's creation had almost gotten her censured, and very pointed questions had been asked about where she had gotten some of the code that made it so virulent. She'd feigned ignorance, and been given restricted permission to keep it.
The Hydra Node burrowed into the wall, and began to gorge.
"Captain Warrens, we may have a problem," said Vayne.
Her face was floating in a small box to Warrens' right. He sighed.
"I'd hate for one of these diplomatic missions to be boring. You left in an awful hurry. They give us to the count of ten or something?" he said.
"Ah, not quite. Envoy's revelation went slightly less smoothly than expected-"
"Less than expected? I was told to be ready for a hot evac." interrupted Warrens.
"Yes sir, but that isn't our issue. The Voice spoke to Whiskey, and she vacated her body. The last thing she said was that she was 'Probably going to start a war', and to tell you to get ready to run."
Warrens stared at Vayne for a long, uncomfortable moment.
"That, my dear, was exactly what I did not want to hear. Helm! Get us ready to move! Safeties off, we want out of here. Weapons, defensive only. Let's not make this hurt any more than it has to. And Vayne! What the hell is she going to do?"
"I don't know, sir." answered a worried Vayne.
"Whiskey-Ghost has initiated a cyberwarfare attack on the Creator Fleet. We will assist." said Envoy from somewhere to Vayne's left. There was a thump.
"Ah, sir, Envoy just vacated too. The shuttle just docked, and I'm unsure what to do."
"I'd jump to ship if I were you. The shuttle's entering lock down and I'm about to flood its interior with kinetic foam to protect your bodies against what promises to be some truly staggering G forces." said Warrens.
Whiskey had made up her mind. Whoever designed this system, she really, really hated the bastard.
The Hydra Node was burning at full capacity, but the Fleet's defences were depriving it of sufficient material to metastasise. If she could get them to let up their attacks for a moment, she'd be in, but she was losing ground.
Suddenly, the entire frothing, besieged wall shivered. Previously dormant parts of it spun up into full activity, and Whiskey was worried until she realised they were drawing power away from other defences. The Fleet was reacting to something other than her attack.
-Whiskey-Ghost. May we render assistance?
Envoy's swarm buzzed towards her. At the merest hint of their ancestral enemy, the Migrant Fleet's cyber-defences went into full panic mode. It was a weakness she could exploit.
-I need you to keep them distracted. They don't seem to like you.
-These defences have been specifically evolved to counter geth.
-I don't need you to win, or even get a hit in. Just keep them angry and focussed on you. And try not to get hurt.
-We shall attempt to do so, Whiskey-Ghost.
Envoy took off, pinging as many of the Fleet's defences as possible. Whole sections of the wall reconfigured, remaking themselves to fight what they believed to be the greater threat.
The Hydra Node finally had enough food.
It was always hard for Whiskey to give decent reports of cyberspace battles to non-Ghosts. Most Uploaded simply couldn't understand it. But she tried.
In what she reported later as 'an explosion of tentacles', the Hydra Node began burrowing through the Fleet's defensive wall. Portions of the wall realigned to fight back, but the Node swarmed them, consuming as it did so. It took only a moment more for some smart quarian technician to reset the defences to focus on the Node rather than Envoy's random buzzing drive-bys, but that moment was all that was needed. The wall was breached.
Launching herself from her nook in the By other Means outer walls, Whiskey passed through the vicious Hydra Node like a, well, ghost, and slipped into the Migrant Fleet's main network. It was still hideously well defended even behind the wall, and she knew she only had moments to act.
If she had been possessed of a body, she would have swallowed nervously. Attacking a potential ally without provocation was one thing, but if word of what she was about to do got out, she didn't fancy her chances back home.
With great care, she withdrew the code-packet she had hidden earlier. This was what she had studied in secret to make the watered-down shadow she'd named 'Hydra Node', and that had gotten her in a lot of trouble.
With the care and gravity of a technician priming an anti-matter warhead, she inserted the payload into the program and released it. It slipped away, vanishing quickly into the quarian network as though its defences were painted on.
As though hell itself waited behind her, she fled, sending the destruct code to the Hydra Node as she blew past it. The quarian wall sealed again, hopefully with that thing on the other side.
-Envoy, we're leaving!
-We follow, Whiskey-Ghost.
Together, Ghost and geth leapt back onto the By Other Means. The microsecond they had, she sent a signal to Warrens.
"Armour integrity holding, regeneration active, but we can't stand much more," yelled Engineering.
"We'll hold another 15 seconds. If that's not enough, we leave Whiskey to this mess she started." snapped Warrens.
Barely moments after the shuttle had been stowed and foamed, the quarians had opened fire. No hail, no warning, just round after round of kinetic destruction.
Given that the Voice was involved, Warrens had stayed in range so Whiskey could run her one-woman war. They'd dodged and flew with a speed and ferocity that soiled the suits of at least three quarian gunners, but one ship against 50,000 ends only one way. At least they only had about 1000 firing at them now, thought Warrens. That's not so bad.
"GO!" cracked a voice from thin air.
Whiskey's message echoed across the bridge, and Helm was already aiming for the Relay before Warrens yelled the same command.
The main drive of the cruiser fired, space-time crumpled, and the By Other Means went from 'dodging only most of the bullets' to 'gone'. Dozens of quarian ships pursued it, but the cruiser's initial acceleration was obscene. By the time the quarians were back in weapons range, the human vessel was hitting the Relay, and the last few shots sailed off to ruin someone else's day, somewhere, sometime.
And back inside the quarian fleet, the spambot began dissemination of the video Whiskey had loaded it with.
Five years later, quarians were still receiving recordings of that meeting, and the geth's offer.