A/N: Um, sorry for the wait! And thank you to everyone who has been waiting, and messaging me support. Especially HugoCogs, who has given me regular pokes in the side (and the head) to get me off my sorry bottom and back writing.
They found an old Kodiak on the commune in the next valley over, as the sky was beginning to turn a rosy colour. They were lucky quarian colonists didn't go in for delicate machines; even luckier that they had left heavy duty equipment under light security. It was parked on the edge of the compound, behind grain silos. Liara forced the door, pushed Samantha and Idenna into the back, and climbed inside silently.
Farming communities rose early; it wouldn't be long before they raised the alarm. Liara jimmied the ignition, at the same time trying to stop her hands shaking. Sunrise was bleeding across the rim of the hills to the west by the time she took off. She flew east, away from the dawn.
In truth, she didn't know where to go.
The Kodiak had been an agricultural vehicle and its back section was configured for cargo. It ran hot and slow. Liara, in the pilot seat, heard Samantha stripping out the emergency first aid compartment. Neither she nor Idenna said a word. Liara focused on the antiquated nav deck and its blinking, flashing alarms. The fuel gauge was low; punching into Rannoch orbit would be impossible.
She considered their options with cold, hard scree streaming beneath them. Returning to Varavi now would be fatal, and the other two cities with spaceports were several hours flight away. Maybe too far for the shuttle. And now she had to factor Idenna into the equation.
Their best choice was going back to Samantha's house in the hills to regroup. It was remote; it was hidden; and the only emissary of Leviathan on this planet that might have deduced where to find them was now dead. The prospect was tempting.
It won't take long before we're tracked there. A day. If we're lucky, two. But that is enough.
Liara thinned her lips and swung north, back toward the ocean, and inputted the navpoint into the Kodiak's flight computer. Then she slumped into her seat with her head in her hands, and let the shuttle speed ahead. She shut her eyes.
Idenna was an unwanted complication. She would be more unpredictable and less useful than Samantha; at the same time, she would render Samantha much less effective. She was a child with dietary needs - complex medical needs - as soon they left this planet. If it came down to it, Samantha would choose Idenna's safety over the success of the mission. That was unfortunate.
Tendrils of doubt began to twist into Liara's mind. Could Samantha be relied on? If Samantha had outlived her usefulness, the best thing would be to be rid of her. Them. It was logical. She had done it before.
The force of her gut reaction surprised her. It felt like a pillar of ice crushing into her sternum.
She peered backward into the cargo hold, eyes narrowed. Samantha and Idenna were wrapped tightly together in the blankets on the floor, asleep. The girl was facing away, wound around her mother. Liara could see only Samantha's face peeping from the blankets, her black hair falling across her face.
Why? She asked herself.
Nothing was more important than this mission. Idenna's presence markedly reduced her chances of success. But each time her mind trespassed onto that dark prospect, the ice twisted and ground her innards to mush. She felt sick. Whatever the logic of it, she could not dispose of the problem. Her. Them. Nor, she realised, could she simply leave them, disappear.
That would be a death sentence as much as the other… suggestion.
Sam stirred, breathed a deep, sleeping breath, then drew Idenna closer to her. Liara's stomach churned with... something. Something hopeful and earnest and too fragile to name.
She resented it, but that did not stop her growing need for the human from being real.
For the first time in twenty years, somebody cares that I am here. And for the first time in all those years, my choices can change everything.
Naya needed her, but it was a different sort of need, less important and at the same time more real. While she was away from her Liara would always feel hollow, as if her keystone was missing. But she could operate; and Naya could thrive without her, at least for now. Miranda and Jack were responsible people. Naya's half-human side would flourish.
Looking at Idenna, wrapped tightly in her mother's arms, Liara was hit by how fiercely she missed her. The blue and peach of her skin, the soft smell of her, her simple smile.
The shuttle was scudding out now over the sea, fingers of light bouncing off the waves. Liara watched the chop beneath her dully. The northern continent was still twenty minutes ahead; then fifteen; then ten. Froth foamed on the peaks of the waves.
She gradually became aware of eyes drilling into her crests.
Idenna stood in the mouth of the cockpit, a rust-coloured blanket gathered around around her and smoke dust smeared like kohl across her face. She slid into the adjacent seat, then stared at Liara with a flat expression.
Her face was long and thin and white, with mother-of-pearl eyes and thick pale lips. A silver braid, dirty now, sprouted from the top of her head and coiled down into the blanket, elongating her features even further. She swung her legs around and gripped her seat with gangling hands. Idenna was head and shoulders taller than than Samantha and her, with pale, dancer's limbs. But she was still only a child.
'Who are you?' she said. Pointed teeth glinted behind her lips as she spoke.
'A friend.' Liara flushed as she thought about her recent thoughts.
'Who are you really?'
She swallowed. 'I'm really a friend. Your mother is a good friend to me.'
Idenna looked back into the cargo compartment. Samantha had lost twenty pounds and her face had all the colours of a Chascan sunrise. 'Doesn't look much like it.'
'Her injuries will heal. They're worse than they look.'
'I know. We put medigel wrappers on the cuts.'
Idenna slotted her palms under her thighs. 'What did you do to me before? In the shelter?'
Liara gripped the controls, though the shuttle was still on full auto. 'I needed to talk to you, but you were too afraid to hear. So I made you understand.'
"I knew it was a meld. You should ask before you do that."
Liara remembered Idenna was from Ilium, where melding etiquette would be impressed early on children of all species.
'It was an emergency. I apologise.'
Idenna fell silent. Liara turned back to the controls, though she was still aware of being closely watched. She let her stare. The seconds stretched.
Liara began to pick out the promontories of the northern continent's coastline hugging the horizon.
'They were looking for you,' the girl murmured in a quiet voice. 'Omi knew something was wrong. She locked me in down there. They killed her and abi.'
She didn't need to finish for Liara to glean her meaning: because of you. And it made her angry at being blamed, sad because she knew she would be, and guilty because part of her knew she deserved it. Idenna was wiping her face on her blanket.
'There was nothing I could do. And I am sorry. But the ones behind this will pay for what they've done.'
'Who are they?'
'The beings that created the Reapers.' The girl winced, reflexively, but the word held no intrinsic terror for her; they had been defeated years before she was born. 'They want to take our planets and make us slaves.'
She didn't elaborate further, but Idenna was curious.
'They didn't look alien. They looked - I don't know. I didn't get too close. Human, I guess. Or maybe batarian.'
Liara nodded. 'They are just thralls. Simply doing their master's bidding.' Indoctrination was a grotesque, horrifying topic, and she didn't know how much Samantha would want her to say. 'They control people. They can force them to do terrible things. They want our planets, our resources. Tribute.'
Idenna frowned. She looked on the brink of dismissing Liara's account as some ridiculous child's tale. 'Is that why mum's helping you? Why she's on the run with you?'
Liara glanced back at Samantha. She chose her next words with care. 'You don't know me. I'm not asking you to believe me, at least not yet. I'm not asking you to trust me. But trust her, Idenna. Trust that she trusts me. Trust that we are doing the right thing.'
Idenna seemed to consider; she opened her mouth, then shut it. Then, she spoke in a small, determined voice.
"Okay. But if you hurt my mum, I'll hurt you."
Liara peered down her nose at her, surprised at the girl's pluck and at the same time, impressed. She smiled, thinly. 'We understand one another perfectly."
'Her friends call her Sam, you know. Only people who work for her call her Samantha.'
"Well, I prefer it. But I will ask her about that, Idenna.'
"Just call me Denny." The first hint of a returning smile. The girl stuck out her hand. Liara grasped it as they left the sea behind.
'Liara T'Soni. Just Liara.'
Tali was locked into a small, square holding cell. A flimsy cot was tucked into one corner; a sink and mirror hung on the opposite wall, and there was a desk and a chair. Everything was the same monotone gray, no wear, no dust. It felt sterile, and unsafe.
It was rare for the Council to question incarcerated people in person, so these rooms, set directly below the Council audience chamber, almost never got used. They preferred holos: less of a security were making a rare exception. For one of their own.
Tali felt the trial looming like an iron shadow. It could end her life; if she was exiled to Omega, that was all but certain. The same darkness lay across every road. She'd spent decades as a politician and even longer as a colony leader, but against Tevos and Kaeson and Pon, her odds were short.
Talking would simply buy some time. For them - Ashley and Liara, Wrex and James, Miranda and Jack and Naya. Not her.
She lifted herself off the cot, paced to the door and back. She had decided on her simplest exosuit for the trial; black and purple and bronze, nothing too ornate. She left her helmet on the cot next to where she'd been sitting. She didn't want to wear it – to everyone but the volus councillor, it would make her look evasive - but it might be her best option. Tali was afraid she wouldn't be able to hide her fear. She always was a terrible liar.
Ashley would be getting into position right about now, grabbing evidence from the Turing that could vindicate her - proof of Leviathan's power and intentions. The irony was that the information would probably come too late to save her.
There weren't many things she would look back at and regret. The deaths of her father, and Garrus, had always made her wonder if she could have done more. But they were old scars on her heart now, healed over and strong. Most of her life since then had been about duty and service and avoiding deepening ties and new wounds on her heart. But there was a new place in it now reserved for James, a swollen cut, raw and new. It brought sweet plain and bitter pleasure and the promise of more to come. Whatever was beginning with him was certain to be cut down. The knowledge brought stinging tears to the corner of her eyes.
What would you do, Shepard? It was a well-worn question that Tali had asked herself often. Shepard would always take the chance to make things better.
But why me? Why does it have to be me?
She shuffled to the sink and gripped the rim, hands numb. They would summon her soon. Tali forced herself to glance up into the mirror. She looked drained, wisps of silver hair drifting like weeds beside her ears, deep lines bracketing her lips. The harsh strip lights made her look sick. She swallowed, and it felt like gulping thorns.
All her choices had funnelled to this single point.
After this, that's it. I'm done. I'll drag James back to Varavi. Or I'm sure Demeter isn't too bad.
When he had come to her he had still smelled of the desert, the faint iron tang of human blood and the musky scent of his combat armor. Their time together had been the answer to a dream, but too short. Much too short. And the memory eluded her every time Tali tried to cling to it, the thoughts leaching away like water though her fingers. She needed it now. James' comfort made being in prison more bearable and at the same time, impossible to withstand.
'Ma'am?' Somebody cleared his throat. A voice, low and flanged, came from behind her. Turian. 'It's time.'
The C-Sec officer was older, bright-eyed, with blue colony markings. Old enough to have seen service in the War. He saluted her as soon as she straightened up. She pulled her belly in and her chest out, feeling dizzy, feeling her resolve set solid.
'Lead the way.'
He nodded, then stooped to pick her helmet from the cot. He handed it out to her, but she shook her head. He tucked it under one arm as she walked past.
The guard led them down a short, squat corridor and up a flight of steps. A metal platform with a lockable gate waited at one end. She stepped on, turned back to face him, and squared her shoulders. He secured the gate with an audible clack, looking up at her. His face was gentle.
'Sure you don't want it, ma'am?' He patted the helmet with one claw.
'I'm sure. Thank you.'
"There's no place to keep it down here. It'd just clutter the cells up." He reached over the barrier and placed it by her feet, where the other Councillors wouldn't be able to see it. 'You keep it. Just in case.'
He activated the controls, and the platform rose slowly. The ceiling began to lens open. Tali squeezed her hands behind her back until her knuckles complained. She looked up.
Here goes nothing.
She emerged into the Council's pyramidal audience chamber, onto a dais set at some distance from the rest of the Council, but occupying the same space at the front of Council's amphitheatre. This was where they conducted cross-examinations – of prisoners, ambassadors, Spectres. And today, Councillors.
Though it was morning, the tinted glass made it feel like she had stepped into thickening twilight. She squinted while her eyes adjusted. It was the sort of space that felt half-empty even when it was full, as it was today. She heard the hiss of air humidifiers, the low murmur of voices. Swirling lights from the iridescent globe suspended above the amphitheatre played across a rigid mass of bodies on the seats below.
She'd never seen it glow that way before. Something prickled uneasily at the back of her mind.
The next thing she noticed was the noise. There was some, but not much. At quarian trials it could take a good five minutes' shouting to quiet everybody. This was not as rowdy. Tali recognised Aria's envoy, a barrel-chested batarian woman, glowering in the middle of the crowd. Orrin, her assistant, hugged a datapad to his chest with his face pulled taut. Flycams flitted like bats over the audience.
She looked, and looked, and looked until she saw two giant figures, sitting awkwardly on the low-slung benches like elcor at a kindergarten. Suddenly, she could breathe again.
Wrex she would recognise anywhere. The other one must be Sedna. James had given her the details, but it was still as surreal as it always had been to see krogan females outside of the DMZ. Especially ones wearing full battle-armor. She wondered if they were here for violence. With their dented and bullet-pocked hardsuits, Tali thought they might be. They were both biotics. They didn't need guns.
James was right, she thought. She does look like Grunt.
And then - there he was.
He'd always been there, propped up between his pair of krogan guards, looking tired, and scarred, and very grey. Tali's heart hopped into her throat. It took a lot to make a human James's size look small. He wore his dress uniform, four proud bars proud on each shoulder, and when she found him he raised his hand and smiled.
He was her ballast. But the look in his eyes mirrored the dread in her own mind.
Finally, she turned to her left. The other councillors had begun to file into the chamber. Tevos reached her terminal in the centre; she was flanked on either side by the batarian Banno, Otho Pon, the volus, Dalatrass Kaeson, Dominic Osoba, and finally the turian, Stultus.
One terminal lay empty at the end of the row. Her own.
Tevos raised her hand for quiet. She waited for silence. It rushed up fast.
'Councillor Tali'Zorah vas Normandy,' Tevos began, 'you are accused of aiding and abetting a notorious criminal in the assassination of the recognised leader of Omega, Aria T'Loak. You are further accused of allowing this criminal escape from Council custody, of withholding essential intelligence from the Council, and of acting contrary to the interests of the Council and its member governments.
'What say you to these charges?"
She barely heard the words, or her own reply.
The crowd erupted, voices muttering and exclaiming. There were catcalls. Several councillors shook their heads, confused or frustrated. Tevos sighed, before raising both arms for silence.
'The evidence against you leaves little room for dispute, Tali'Zorah.'
'I don't agree'.
'Very well. I had hoped to avoid this.' Tevos nodded to Dalatrass Kaseon, who seemed to puff up as she prepared to speak, hands twitching in the sleeves of her robe.
There suddenly seemed to be more flycams buzzing in the air.
'Tali'Zorah vas Normandy, how long have you been a member of this Council?'
'Ten years. Before that I was a Convenor on Rannoch. And before that, an Admiral of the Migrant Fleet.'
Longer than you.
'Is it true that you travelled to Omega approximately one galactic standard month ago aboard the SSV Turing?'
'Spectre Ashley Williams asked me to go.'
'Spectre Williams was on Omega at the time?'
'Yes. I ordered her there.'
'And just what orders did you give her, Tali'Zorah?'
Tali resisted the urge to fidget. 'The Shadow Broker was being held on Omega. We had reason to believe the Broker could be in immediate danger.'
Kaeson rubbed her chin with one thin, slender hand. 'And why should that matter to you?'
'That should be obvious. The Broker keeps highly sensitive information, including about every one of us. Councillors, I mean. Would you want all that in Aria T'Loak's hands?'
Kaeson blinked like a shutterbug. 'I am asking the questions here.'
Tali waited pliantly for the next one.
'So what were your orders to Williams?'
'Investigate the Broker's whereabouts. If possible, recover her alive.'
'I see, I see. But was there a specific reason you selected Williams for this mission, and not another Spectre?'
Tali swallowed. She could see where Kaeson was pushing this.
'Williams and I were both at the Lawson Institute. We were together when we received intelligence that the Broker was was missing.'
At this point, Dominic Osoba's face darkened. He leaned forward against his terminal. 'We track everything that moves in Alliance space, and I mean everything. You can't be saying you found the Shadow Broker under our noses.'
Actually, that's exactly what I'm saying, Tali thought.
'Not at all,' she replied. 'We didn't find her in the Maroon Sea. She was on Omega. As you know.'
The Councillors peered between one another.. Tevos pressed her palms to her console and tipped forward. She enunciated each word with particular care.
"Williams extracted the Broker successfully. But it also appears that Aria T'Loak was murdered at some stage in the process. And as a direct consequence of the operation. The death of a political potentate in the conduct of a Council operation is a matter with grave consequences. How do you explain this, Tali'Zorah?'
Tali's eyes flicked to the helmet at her feet. She fought a rearing urge to put it on. Instead, she forced herself to glare back at the Council, though her knees felt like water.
'Aria T'Loak wasn't killed by any Council operative. She was killed by her own Chief of Security. When she tried to kill Williams.'
Surprise flickered through the councillors and through the crowd, murmuring ringing in Tali's ears. Only Tevos seemed unsurprised by the revelation.
'Who? And how did it happen? Answer carefully, Tali.'
Tali wrapped her hands around the rail holding her in.
'Aria's Chief of Security was an ex-thief, Kasumi Goto. She was assigned to monitor Spectre Williams's activities on Omega. When Williams got close to finding the Shadow Broker, Aria thought she'd double-cross her and take the Broker for herself. She intercepted Williams and tried to kill her. She would have succeeded, too, if Kasumi hadn't stopped her.'
"Meaning what?" Dalatrass Kaeson said.
'Meaning she stabbed Aria. In the back.'
The audience erupted again. Tevos tried, unsuccessfully, to pat down the noise with her hands. Tali listened to the snatches of words that floated upward. Some thought Aria got what was coming to her; others thought Tali was lying through her teeth. Of the Councillors, Osoba looked relieved, Pon danced furiously from foot to foot, and Kaseon's long mouth had twisted as though sucking on something unpleasant.
Finally, the noise settled back to a low, constant murmur.
'How very - convenient. That your - hands should be - clean,' Pon wheezed.
'It's the truth. Ask Spectre Williams.' Tali said. I just hope Kasumi's light years from Omega by now.
This time, Stultus spoke. His voice was sceptical, but sad.
'It is a compelling tale, but unfortunately it is impossible to corroborate,' he said. His mandibles flicked. 'Spectre Williams is compromised by her relationship to you. Ms Goto cannot be found, and in any event is beyond our jurisdiction here.' He sighed. 'Tali, you know we take our Councillors' word on faith unless we have a compelling reason not to do so. Omega is different. You know Sulla Darkissian and the League will never accept this.'
She did know. It still hit her like a punch to the gut. She hadn't let herself hope she could avoid being exiled, but some small part of her hadn't obeyed that order.
'Well, I thought I still was on the Ark,' she choked. 'My mistake.'
More noise from the crowd. Dominic Osoba shook his head. He was hating every minute of this, she could tell.
'If this was it, Tali,' he wheedled, 'if your story ended here, we would be inclined to believe you, Tali. And to face the consequences of doing so, which would likely be… unpleasant. But you have made it very difficult for us.'
Here is is, Tali thought. It's coming.
She peered upward. The sphere hanging above them all was lit unnaturally now, pink and blue lights playing over its surface like the reflections at the bottom of a swimming pool. But there was no light coming in to be refracted.
Kaseson stepped forward again. Unlike Osoba, glee practically dripped from her voice. 'You've been careless with your alibi in Goto," she said. 'But not even you have an alibi for this.'
She tapped a few commands into her omnitool. A grainy video jumped into life behind her, the size of a movie screen. The picture showed the darkened interior of the Mariana's medbay, back from when they had jumped out of Sahrabarik..
Tali went cold. She had set this snare herself. And yet she still felt the air darken and constrict, as though she was being squeezed by a huge fist. The crowd seemed to draw in a deep breath.
There were three beds arranged at the far side of the room. A sleeping human form lay supine on the far gurney; an asari lay curled on her side on the nearest. Tali occupied the one in the middle, sat upright, arms curled around her knees in the dark.
A door opened, spilling light into the medbay. A human entered, woke the asari, and started speaking to the Tali on the screen. Thankfully, there was no audio.
"Identify these two individuals," said Kaeson.
'That's Samantha Traynor. Star of Terra. Chief Executive of TraynorTech'. Tali heard her own voice, flat, as if it were coming from another person. 'The asari is Liara T'Soni.'
Tevos touched Kaeson's sleeve, and the salarian fell silent. She held Tali in a laserlike stare, but her voice was soporifically gentle.
'Liara T'Soni was declared dead in 2189. What is she doing in that medbay?'
The question was a slow knife, and Tali felt it twist as she answered.'Liara is the Shadow Broker.'
'The Shadow Broker,' she murmured, without inflection. 'You knew her well.'
'A lifetime ago. Not anymore.'
They all watched as the three of them talked briefly on the vid, as her and Sam's omnis pulsed orange.
"What happened there, Tali'Zorah?" Tevos's gaze was serene.
There wasn't a lie to give. Wasn't this why she'd made sure these vids could be found in the first place?
'Hangar bay overrides. I was giving Samantha hangar bay overrides.'
'Indeed. I'm interested in knowing how you got them. Did Spectre Williams give them to you?'
The trap was snapping shut. She looked at Ashley's sleeping face on the vid, Aria's stranglemarks making her neck swollen and vivid. Her mind flicked to her now, the risk she was running at this moment.
'No,' she replied. 'She would never do that. I… I took them.'
She rubbed her hand down her face. 'I stole them. She would never have let me have them if she knew what I wanted them for.'
'Which was?' Tevos's voice was hypnotic, lulling her prey into calm, like a snake.
'I helped her escape. Not to escape justice! To - to stop Leviathan.'
Stultus' mandibles were flicking rapidly. 'The Leviathan?'
Tali nodded. Despite herself, despite knowing the futility, she was willing him to understand. 'All the proof you need is on the-'
He cut across her. 'The Leviathan agreed to settle peacefully after the Reaper War. They agreed to live in isolation, away from the relays. We assessed their resources and intent. They are no threat to us.'
'You're wrong. Unbelievably wrong,' Tali murmured.
The trap had been sprung and she had walked inside; there was no point explaining or laying out what she knew. Struggling would only make it worse. No-one would believe her about Leviathan now, any more than they would start believing Kasumi was the one to kill Aria. They thought it was her. Any credibility she had was vaporised.
It was over to Ash now.
The room was whirling. She could barely see anymore, the faces and colours and shadows all becoming a blur. But then she looked out over the crowd and caught James' face, his steady, trusting expression. I believe you, it was saying. I believe you and somehow, we are going to make this okay.
Wrex and Sedna, too. They were looking at her with complete conviction. They believed her. They knew. Others would, too. And she realised that, far from coming here to wreak violence, Wrex had come for her. To give her strength.
Her eyes fell on him. Wrex held her gaze, huge red eyes unblinking, and then nodded.
Now's my last chance. Before the Council silence me for good.
'"The Leviathan bent the galaxy to their will before,' she started. 'Not because they had to, but because they could! Now the Reapers are gone, they intend to reclaim that place. They've spent the last two decades preparing the way.'
Slivers of ice flicked up her spine. Kaeson and the others were bristling. 'Tali-Zorah, this is not-'
She ignored them. 'Liara's life work since the War has been tracking them down. Watching them. Knowing when and where and how they'll strike! They're coming. Think! When have I ever lied to you?'
Voices in the crowd were shouting out. People were standing, pointing. Control was breaking down. But the flycams were still rolling, and she was still on the dais. She kept going, in the vain hope someone would listen.
"We thought they went quietly, but we were wrong!" Her voice cracked. It had grown dark, and cold, as if all the air were being squeezed out. 'All the time we thought Leviathan was doing us a favour by enthralling Reaper forces, they were slowly indoctrinating thousands of us! The Leviathan Enthrallment Teams are disbanded by they're all still here - in militaries, in colonies, in politics - just waiting for orders!'
She pointed upward to the sphere, pointing where dozens of others were now pointing, speaking the truth as she realised it. The ball was pulsing now, splitting the air around it, making it thick with sound - the same, low prickle in the back of her skull she'd sensed from the start.
'They're here now!' Tali yelled. 'Indoctrinating you with that evil thing up there. Indoctrinating me!'
She barely heard Stultus shouting for order, or heard anything else from the Council, for that matter. The sphere was exerting a strange effect on the crowd. Rationality was gone. Tali doubted many of them had heard what she had said; almost all of them were looking at where the sphere was now glaring back down at them, like a malevolent eye. It had started to emit a high, dangerous whine. And people were starting to panic.
Then, the ground shuddered. It felt to Tali like a tectonic tremor, or the judder of an old starship when its drive core blew.
Except the Ark had no engines, and they were billions of miles from a planet. Tali gripped the barriers with both hands.
It shook again, a deep shake rumbling through the soles of her feet. This time, it was accompanied by a cavernous boom.
To any spacer, the sounds were unmistakable. They filled Tali with pure, hot terror.
She heard James' voice, calling her name -
Then the lights went out, and the darkness was filled with screams.
They decided to access the Kolasi docks and board the Turing from the outside of the station. Aethyta hatched the plan. Security around the ship, and the Shadow Broker's archives stored inside, was thick enough to make creeping by impossible. They modelled every configuration and scenario, from crawling through the vents to blowing the shielding around the quays and catwalks. They'd wind up buying the farm, every time.
More than once, Ash had considered the alternative, late at night with nobody around to intrude on her thoughts. She had toyed with sabotaging life support to the docks, shorting the barriers and letting dark, airless space rush in to snuff out the lives all along the gangways. She never took it seriously. Cracking some heads together might be necessary, but she didn't want to go down as a mass murderer. None of them did. The stain of Omega lay like slick oil over her conscience, viscous and suffocating. She didn't want to go there again, no ma'am, even if that was all Aria's damn fault.
Aethyta and Arola had come up with the answer, scanning blueprints and hacked camfeeds and security protocols. They could take the long way around, on the outside, along the Arks's pock-marked, ramshackle hull. Apart from occasional drone and manned shuttle patrols, security on the outside of the Ark's hull was almost non-existent. As they firmed up the plans Ash felt relief lighten her bones like rocks being lifted from her back.
Sure, clean and careful. I'll make sure of that.
They got outside via a disused airlock in the underbelly of the Ark, previously used to expel trash. The three of them waited as the air hissed and the portal irised open; then for a second all Ash could see were smoky wisps of white escaping past them, out of the hole. Beyond that, trillions of pinprick stars lay like diamond dust on coal.
She exhaled slowly. Nearly thirty years training in zero-g and she still held her breath in her lungs every time a lock purged. It felt wrong not to. She turned to the others, checked her comm frequency.
'You both okay to go?'
'You bet I am,' Aethyta replied, grin in her voice. She wore one of Ash's old armors, polished to a dark bluebottle shine. Her hands moved to check her suit seals reflexively, her fingers nimble and practised, before grasping the SMG on her hip and the Disciple clipped to the small of her back.
'You remember what I told you?'
'Sure. No biotics until we're inside. I get it. This isn't my first time, you know.'
'It's not the first time breaking into a ship from space?' Arola's voice broke in, thin and reedy. Guy was scared. Aethyta shrugged in response, then pushed herself out of the airlock and disappeared.
Ash turned. Arola was already fumbling clumsily with his omnitool, which glared so brightly in the dark of the garbage chute that it made her eyes burn. He wore no guns, but carried a bulky hardcase on his back. The armour he was wearing was another castoff that once belonged to her son. Somehow, it made Arola look less of a man, not more.
'I know, I know,' he grumbled. 'No tech. No lights, no pings. I'm moving.'
She nodded. 'Let's go, chief.'
She led him out, cautiously, onto the hull. Their gravboots were magnetic and they walked slowly, deliberately, like climbers caught in a blizzard. Step-stick-pull. Step-stick-pull. Again. Again. Her eyes lifted, and she made the mistake of looking up too fast. The sky was vast, cold, perfect. Vertigo rushed up her legs and pushed her stomach up into her throat; her head span. She swung her head round desperately to find something to anchor herself, some landmark, and found the Relay, hanging pale and blue above her like a silent moon.
They clambered forward. Step-stick-pull. The Ark was no ordinary station, and neither was its hull; it was grafted together from hundreds of ships from the Migrant Fleet, plus military craft abandoned in their hundreds after the Reaper War, a chaotic map of rivets and serial codes. From the safety of an approaching ship, it looked almost smooth but from here, Ash knew differently; it was a ghoulish mish-mash of the corpses of dead ships, a thin, Frankenstein's pelt of craters and cliffs, stitches and tears, ship names and ageless graffiti.
It felt like climbing on a scrapheap.
They walked first up a flat path with a fairly even tread, until after a few hundred metres it dropped down into a channel between two banks of dark metal. The sky that once had been limitless shrank to a neat strip of stars. Ash hustled them through quickly, onto what looked like a battlefield, lumpy and criscrossed with trenches.
Aethyta was already there. Ash reddened as she realised the old girl had tweaked her suit's gravity settings. She began to hop, skip and leap like a high jumper, bounding across the deep trenches effortlessly. She stopped on the far side by dropping to her knees on a high ledge and gripping the terrain, almost somersaulting over her hands. Something between a gasp and a moan came from Arola.
Ash scowled. 'Nobody likes a smartass, Aethyta.'
Oh, come on. I was doing this back when you humans were still riding into battle on animals. It's like someone nailed you both to the floor.'
'No. No way,' Arola said gruffly. He looked at Ash for backup. 'You do what you want. I'm a marine, but I'm a retired marine.'
'We get one shot at this,' Ash agreed. 'This isn't a practice run.'
'Suit yourself.' Aethyta climbed an outcropping, effortlessly, and passed out of sight. Ash watched Arola as he started methodically across the field. Aethyta was right: he looked about as natural as a mech, walking glued to the floor.
She dialed her own grav settings down slightly.
Arola grunted in her helmet comm. She peered ahead, and launched herself experimentally across a trench as Aethyta had done, landing unsteadily on the far side.
Her radio emitted a quick static burst, then she heard Arola's voice again. He'd switched to a private channel.
'I don't like it. Her going off like that.'.
Ash checked her display. 'She hasn't gone far. She's not dumb. She's scouting, or something.'
'Sure. But who's running the mission?'
Ash didn't react. 'She gets that. But she's never been military. I don't think she exactly gets chain of command.'
Then how'd she know how to do all that?' He breathed raggedly into his suit comm. 'I don't even want to know.'
'Aethyta's old. She's tended bars from here to the Far Rim. She was crewing eezo tugs before Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg address. One thing I've learned: never underestimate a matriarch.'
Arola shook his head in agreement. 'I met one asari who said she'd founded a colony about the same time as John Winthrop did.'
She tsked. 'That's old.'
'Doesn't mean they know best, though.'
'Nope. Just don't let 'em hear that.'
He laughed quietly in his helmet.
They moved together toward the rise Aethyta had disappeared beyond, Ash trying and succeeding in flowing more fluidly now through the vacuum, Arola lugging behind. He had been adamant about not carrying guns. He was coming to hack and grab all the data they could, and besides, he'd said, he hadn't held an assault rifle in twenty years. Ash agreed they couldn't expect him to be a full combatant if it came to it, but privately she thought him naive.
If they were caught, they were all going down hard. Guns or no guns.
She switched her comm signal to their shared channel, so Aethyta could hear again, and scrambled up what must have been an old turret mount. The old matriarch came back into view maybe thirty metres distant, boosting herself lightly up a vertical surface that had to be twice her height. Ash marvelled. That asari could swim through vacuum like she was underwater - snorkeling, maybe, in a tropical sea. She'd never realised just how gracefully it could be done; how clumsily most species still did it. Asari had centuries on other species. That said, she couldn't picture Wrex moving in the same, feline way.
'You still think this will work?' Ash murmured. She looked at Arola. She knew he had heard, but he said nothing for several moments.
'Yes.' She saw his eyes, glinting like glass, beneath his visor. 'We reveal the truth, and we make it impossible for the Council to sweep all this under the rug. The Hierarchy and the Alliance and the Republic will have have to deal with this..'
'That isn't just the Westerlund in you talking?'
'Aethyta cut in. 'Of course it's the Westerlund in him talking. But that doesn't mean the guy's wrong.''
'I'm not going to lie,' Arola said. 'This will be the biggest story of the noughties. And big for me. But I have to believe that that the same people who lived and fought through the Reaper War have a little more fight in them left. To do the right thing. And if it doesn't work, and everything you and the Admiral said is true?' That same, strangled laugh again. ' Jail time will be the least of it.'
Ash frowned. She thought of James's burned and broken skin, the limp he was nursing. She swallowed. and felt Aria's fingermarks around her throat. Tuchanka and Omega were merciless and they were coming. The Leviathan were coming. And when they did, the Council planets had no chance unless they could reawaken the their survival instincts. Unless she could. A generation had passed since the Reaper War, but the Council races were still weak and exhausted.
At that moment, their three chronos chimed all stopped. Aethyta tapped her wrist, then gave them the thumbs up.
The trial was now in session. Tali was on. Fingers of iron clenched tightly around her heart.
The countdown had begun.
Do it, Tali, she thought. Go ten rounds with those guys if you need to.
'Quit gassing and pick it up, humans.' Aethyta's voice sounded tinny. 'That's our cue.' The alarm seemed to charge her up with nervous energy. She started to move off so quickly that Ash had to tell her to stop. The rest of their journey to the docks happened quickly and in silence.
From an approaching ship, the Kolasi docks looked like a dark, gaping slash in the side of the station, filled with craft like tiny fishes in the mouth of a whale. They were approaching it now from underneath, where the lip of the opening jutted out like a cliff overhang. Aethyta managed it in a single leap, but when Ash looked up the change in perspective - she walking vertical, the ships hanging perpendicular - made her mouth dry. She scrambled to the top of the overhang on her hands and knees, knowing that the problem was all in her head but unable to order her body to do otherwise. Arola, stolid and methodical, step-stick-pulled up the incline as he had everything else, though he did double over at points.
When all three of them were perched on the lip, Ash was the first to look over and in. Her perspective swooped again; first it dropped straight down, then switched to looking across, as if she was looking at the bottom of a perfectly flat swimming pool.
Above them hung the ships. In a bay this size there were usually hundreds of them, cruisers and frigates and cargo vessels and shuttles, all attached to the quayside with docking umbilicals or catwalks. But Kolasi was empty. Some distant vessels were moored at the far end of the dock but there was only a scattering of them at their end - and the Turing, lying silent and dark and still.
'Arola, report,' she said hoarsely.
He knelt on the lip of of the opening, consulting his heads-up display, dipping into private comm chatter. The extra tech capacity he was carrying on his back blinked and whirred; in the vacuum of space, she imagined rather than heard it. He was silent for a long time.
'At least thirty men up there.' He was whispering, even though it was impossible to hear him outside their helmets. 'Plus gun turrets. Assume sniper nests, too. No mechs I can see.'
'Three squads within two hundred meters. Patrolling the quayside. The rest are moving through sections K to M. Up that away.' He lifted one gloved hand and pointed to a spot around the middle of the length of the dock. Too far to worry them right now.
'What about the ship defenses?' asked Aethyta.
'If I run an active scan, it'll ping.' He looked at Ash.
'If we trip the alarms with all those goons waiting around up there, we're varren-meat. Ping it.'
He crouched away from them, holding his body around his omnitool to shield the glow. Ash's heart thumped. He kept it lit long enough to recite every ship she'd ever been stationed on. All that time it would be visible on the floor of the dock like a beacon in a dark night.
'Kinetic barrier inactive. Cyclonic barrier inactive.' The relief was shot through his voice.
'Pretty well shielded for a research vessel,' Aethyta said.
Not anymore. With the power down, the only thing keeping us out is some vanilla old armor. And dormant firewalls.'
'Good.' Ash exhaled gratefully. 'Now turn that damn thing off. You got your swimmers?'
All of them unclipped a small, round ball from their belts and squeezed them in their palms. Ash did the same with her own and felt the eezo cores inside hum into life, hidden in her glove. Before Aethyta could push off ahead of her, she drew her pistol, bent her knees and flexed her heels. She rose straight off the floor.
Ash let the swimmer take her on a pre-programmed route toward the ship. Her gun arm rose up to float in front of her, sidearm pointing loosely at the quay, her legs kicking in slow motion. Arola followed her, close enough to grab her ankles. Beneath him, Aethtya came last, her SMG drawn and levelled the same as Ash, licks of purple beginning to catch around her arms and feet. They all swum up silently, like divers in the dark. The belly of the Turing grew larger and larger in her visor until Ash deactivated her swimmer and let momentum carry her the rest of the way.
She landed on the surface on all fours. Arola collided with the hull more heavily, pressing flat to it as if to convince his body he would stick. Aethyta touched the Turing lightly with both her hands, then planted her feet lightly and stood up. Ash's body, which had yet to adjust itself to another shift in perspective, saw Aethyta standing upside-down. Her stomach flopped into her mouth.
She rolled herself into a crouching position, pulled Arola up by the shoulders. To his credit, he set to work immediately, scuttling a short distance away and activating a shunt programme over an unprotected port. Ash holstered her pistol and unslung her rifle. Aethyta, without looking to Ash for confirmation, did the same, pulling the shotgun from her back. From here it would be nearly impossible for the dockside squads to get a visual, but the ping might draw some attention.
Time to wait. Arola worked silently and with absolute focus, hands moving rapidly around the shunt and over his omni's haptic keypad. Ash scanned the floor of the dock again, now spread out blankly above her head.
The floor of the dock spread out above her head, and in front of her she could once again see the strewn carpet of stars and the wan glow of the relay.
Except this time, something was different.
Her eyes slitted.
Something was wrong.
She squeezed the rifle stock against her shoulders, squinted through the scope. Inside her helmet, Ash's mouth fell open.
Flecks of light were spitting around the relay; a handful at first, then dozens, then more. They came thicker, faster, non-stop. It looked like the relay was giving birth to a cluster of new stars, thickening in the sky around it until it became full of bright white points.
Those aren't stars.
Aethyta was staring out at the relay like she was. Pale light fell softly across her helmet. She said nothing; all Ash could hear was her breathing. Then, even that stopped as Aethyta went absolutely still.
They were ships. The sky around the relay was filling with ships. A fleet. A new flash in the dark every few seconds.
Jesus Christ. There's so many.
'Ten thousand credits says that's not the welcome wagon,' Aethyta murmured, almost too low for Ash to hear.
Ash turned again to Arola, words feeling rubbery in her mouth. She slapped his shoulder. 'We need to be inside, like, yesterday, marine.'
He didn't look up. 'Working on it.'
It was only when the first shooting stars appeared, streaking toward the station like errant comets, that she was certain. Thanix cannons meant cruisers and dreadnoughts. Cruisers and dreadnoughts were bad news.
'Cracked it!' Arola began to twist the port open with his hands.
Good, Ash thought. Because we're all out of time.