Signs and Portents
Authors' Note: According to ME canon, the average lifespan for humans, turians and quarians at the time of the Reaper War was around 150 Standard years. So by 2258, the characters from the ME games would be in their nineties or at most early hundreds. No longer young, but far from decrepit!
Vega arrived in CIC a little behind the others. Like most Spectres, he seldom wore his dress uniform, and it had needed a little sprucing before he could leave his cabin. The Iwo Jima was orbiting about 2000 kilometres out from the Serpent Nebula Relay, in company with the turian cruiser Adrien Victus.
"Why so far out?" Captain Traynor was asking. "Won't it look as if we're suspicious?"
"I used to be a pilot, remember?" Admiral Moreau told her. "When you're coming through a relay, there's always some drift. We don't know just where they'll pop out. Don't want to start the party with a collision!"
"Besides, we are just a little suspicious." Vega added. "New race, new Embassy. It hasn't happened in a while. Means a full Council meeting, for one thing. Lots of security issues. That's why I'm gonna be escorting the Ambassador."
The Admiral turned with a grin. "Hey, James!" He said. "They told me there was gonna be a Spectre in the party. They never said it was you!"
The two men shook hands. "Hey, Joker, you still an Admiral?" Vega asked. "Surprised they haven't busted you back down to Flight Lieutenant yet!"
"I keep trying." Joker admitted. "Doesn't feel right to be in CIC with somebody else in the cockpit. But EDI keeps making me behave!"
"Someone has to." Remarked the curvaceous synthetic who had been standing next to the Admiral. She stepped forward and embraced Vega briefly but warmly. "It is good to see you, James. I understand they have been keeping you busy?"
"Yeah." James averred. "Even with the Reapers gone, the Galaxy ain't a safe place."
"That's for sure!" Joker agreed. "Right, we got a little time, so EDI, give us a rundown on what we know about these minbari?"
"Very well, Jeff. The minbari were first encountered some thirty years ago when they came through a relay on the edge of asari space. That first ship was a military one, and there was a good deal of mutual caution at first, but no overt hostility. It seems the minbari had, in common with many other races, discovered a cache of Prothean material and had thus been able to develop the Mass Effect. However, the systems they occupied at the time contained very few sources of Element Zero. The exploration vessel was seeking more of these.
"Over the next decade, the asari helped the minbari locate more viable sources of Element Zero within their sector, so that they were able to expand their fleet and settle more worlds.
"The asari then brought the matter to the attention of the Council, who granted the minbari trading rights and a consulate on B5. Matters have now proceeded to a point where the Council feels confident in offering the minbari associate status and a full Embassy.
"Minbari society is divided into three castes: Workers, Warriors and Religious. The Religious caste assume the diplomatic function, so the Ambassador we are about to meet will be of that caste. Note that Element Zero does not have the mutagenic effect on minbari that it does on other races. There are no minbari biotics. However, five per cent of the population do exhibit some level of telepathic ability. It makes some people – even among the minbari - uneasy, but apparently the telepaths are strictly regulated by the Religious caste."
"Thanks, EDI." Joker said. "Now, this is how it's gonna work. The minbari ship will come through the relay. Once we're all clear, the Iwo Jima will dock with the minbari ship and the ambassador and two aides will come aboard. We take them to B5, dock in the military section and Commander Vega will escort the diplomatic party onto the station and stay with them until the Embassy is confirmed.
"Meanwhile, the Adrien Victus escorts the minbari ship to the civilian docks and waits with them until the all-clear is given and they can dock.
"All good? OK, Captain, over to you!"
Shortly after that, the Mass Relay flared into life and a ship appeared some distance off.
"About 1100 klicks drift." Joker noted. "Not bad! Not as good as me, but not bad!"
The ship was unlike those of any other race Vega had seen. Its vertical axis was longer than both horizontal ones, giving it the appearance of an angel fish.
"Captain!" Called a crew-member. "The minbari ship just opened its gun-ports!"
"That's OK." Traynor replied. "It was in the briefing. They do that to show respect. Open ours and signal the turians to do the same. No sense being rude!"
"We will leave that to James and Jeff." EDI commented quietly.
Joker shot a wry look at Vega, who responded with a shrug that said You married her!
"Captain, we are being hailed!"
"Patch it through."
The man who appeared on the holo-projection didn't look like a ship captain. Medium height, slender build, wearing robes in quiet earth tones. He was hairless, with some kind of bony growth or crest covering the back of his head and apparently carved along its upper edge. His face was round, with a snub nose, a gentle mouth and soft, kind eyes. His voice was a light tenor.
"Alliance frigate, this is Captain Rennen of the diplomatic vessel Spirit of Valenn, requesting approach vector."
"Spirit of Valenn, this is Captain Samantha Traynor, commanding Human Alliance frigate Iwo Jima. Good to see you. Continue present course and speed, we will join you shortly."
The pilots of both ships clearly knew their trade, as the matching of course and velocity to implement docking was both quick and flawless. Captain Traynor met the diplomatic party and led them to the conference room.
The leader of the minbari delegation was a diminutive woman in pastel robes, with a pointed face and dark, unreadable eyes. She placed a hand over her heart and bowed her head.
"Greetings, I am Ambassador Delenn of the Minbari Confederation. This is my aide, Lennier," a slight, compact man with youthful features, "and my advisor, Kosh Nouriani."
Kosh was not a minbari, or if he was, it was hard to tell. He wore a large and cumbersome-looking costume composed partly of organic-looking plastic and partly of some heavy fabric. From the massive shoulder-piece there emerged a slender neck supporting a head similar in general outline to that of a geth.
"Kosh is a vorlon," Delenn hastened to explain. "One of the few survivors of an ancient and all-but extinct race. He and some fifty of his kind were found adrift in a crippled ship on the edge of the Forbidden Zone fifty years ago. We gave them asylum on Minbar, and in return they share the accumulated wisdom of their millennia of civilisation."
The vorlon stirred. A sound came from it that resembled a kind of sibilant chiming. Over this, a voice that was deep, even, distant and clearly artificial said: "We are few, and we are dying. We share what we can before the end, to seek absolution."
Nobody knew quite how to respond to this pronouncement, so Joker, as ranking officer, replied to Delenn.
"Ambassador, welcome aboard. I'm Admiral Jeffrey Moreau, this is my adjutant, Commander EDI Moreau. Captain Traynor you've met, and this is Commander James Vega, of the Councils' Special Tactics and Reconnaissance corps. Commander Vega will be your escort until after the ceremony.
"Please take a seat, we have a short time before we dock at B5, so if you want to ask any questions, please feel free."
Delenn and Lennier both sat. The vorlon, however, drew off a short distance and stood by the window, apparently gazing out into space.
Delenn looked at EDI. "If you will excuse me satisfying some personal curiosity first. I understood that in defeating the Reapers, all other AIs and synthetics had also been destroyed. Yet our legation reports that at least one race of synthetics exists and is part of your civilisation, and I see before me a synthetic member of your crew. Is there something we have missed? Or not been told?"
"The former, I assume." EDI replied. "The data is readily available. The geth programmes that worked on the Crucible Project predicted the probable effect of the weapons' use. In order to safeguard their survival, they backed themselves up into an offline archive on Rannoch. Once the danger was passed, the archive went online and downloaded the software into surviving platforms.
"As for myself, I was originally part of the operating systems on the Normandy SR-2. As such, my software was regularly saved in the offline backup system. When the pulse from the Crucible blanked the ships' systems, the backups came online and I came with them, suffering only a partial loss of recent memory. This platform had been badly damaged, however, and some repair was necessary before I could download myself into it again."
Delenn nodded. "I see. It doesn't surprise me that I wasn't aware of this. The Religious and Worker castes among our people have always opposed the creation of AIs and synthetic workers, for reasons both spiritual and economic. They would be reluctant to approach any such individuals for fear of giving offence."
Joker frowned. "The Geth Consensus has an embassy on B5. Will you have any problems dealing with Ambassador Locutus and its people?"
Delenn smiled. "No, that will not be a problem. The issues we have with AIs and synthetics are unique to our culture. We are not arrogant enough to expect other races to conform to our practices and beliefs. An entire race of synthetics is something my people will find difficult to believe, but it will not anger or offend them.
"Commander Vega, the reputation of the Spectre corps is known to us. I admit to expecting a much more sinister figure than the soldier I see here!"
Vega shrugged. "No two Spectres are alike, Ambassador. We're chosen for our skills and our commitment to supporting the Council and its aims for a peaceful, law-abiding Galaxy. So, yeah, some of us are sinister, some of us are weird, and some are just regular guys who are better than most at what we do.
"Me, I fought alongside Commander Shepard in the Reaper War – I was part of the Hammer force that fought the ground battle in London. Then I got into N7, did a lot of work during the Reconstruction when things were real messy. Then I was in the Vorcha Wars, fighting alongside the krogan. After that, they made me a Spectre and I've been even busier!
"Being escort to a diplomatic party is kinda downtime for me, y'know?"
"I see, well I hope I may count on you for more than notional protection, Commander." Delenn said. "I must admit that I had been on retreat for some years when I was summoned to this role a few days ago. I have been provided with a great deal of briefing material, which I have yet to read all of. I was told that it would be best to come to this new era for our people with a 'clean mind' and no preconceptions, but there are some things I may need to ask you.
"Firstly, can you fill in the details of todays' programme? I have only a sketch."
OK." Vega said. "Well in a few minutes, we'll dock at Babylon 5, in the military area, for security. From there, we'll take a transport to the Embassy District on Zakera Ward. You'll go to the Minbari Embassy to have a quick look round, see your office and meet the staff. Then you have a meeting with the Ambassadors from the other associated species. Basically an introduction session, names and faces, shouldn't take more than an hour. From there we go to the Presidium where there'll be a short ceremony. The Councillors will ask you some formal questions -you'll be given the answers, it's all pre-agreed with your people. The Council will take a pro-forma vote, and you'll be formally accredited as Ambassador for the Minbari Confederation, which will now be recognised as an associate race under asari mentorship."
"Mentorship?" Lennier asked. "What is mentorship?"
"It means," Joker told him, "that the asari will be available to you for advice and guidance on your dealings with other races and to make sure nobody takes advantage of the new guys until they know the rules. It also means that if you want anything taking to the full Council, the asari will speak for you. And if any other race complains to the Council about you, the asari will be your advocates.
"Finally, of course, if you get out of line, the asari will be responsible for reining you back in! So be thankful you met them first instead of the krogan!"
"Thank you for that." Delenn noted.
Then the voice of the XO came over the intercom. "Captain, we are about to dock."
Contrary to his usual habit, Vega let the car drive itself to the Embassy district while he kept an eye out for trouble. Not that he was expecting any – there'd been no extranet chatter or other intel -but he wasn't taking anything for granted.
"This is quite a remarkable structure, Commander." Delenn remarked. "I understand it to be a replacement for an older one?"
"A few, actually." Vega told her. "The original station – the Citadel, they called it – was actually built by the Reapers as a mass relay into dark space. They used to emerge here, knowing that the most advanced races of that Cycle would have centred their civilisation on the Citadel – basically it was a trap designed to ensure that resistance to the Reapers was minimised. The Protheans figured that out, though, and sabotaged the Citadels' relay function. The Reapers tried to repair it, but we stopped them.
"Then at the end of the Reaper War, the Reapers dragged the citadel into Earth orbit when they found out it was the missing part of the Crucible weapon. But Shepard managed to get aboard the Citadel from Earth and open the arms. The Crucible docked, and the weapon powered up and took the Reapers out.
"The Citadel was pretty banged up, and left in Earth orbit. We managed to salvage one of the arms. Called it the Babylon Station and the Council used it for the next ten years while we got the relays repaired. By that time it was obvious that Babylon was falling apart, so they decided to build a new station, here in the old place, Babylon 2.
"It was meant to be a full-scale replica of the Citadel, but the project was too damn big. Twenty years to build and it didn't last five before it just fell apart. So they salvaged what they could and built a smaller station, Babylon 3. But then then the Vorcha War started and they hit Babylon 3 hard, pretty much wrecked the place.
"So then the plan was to build two stations. Babylon 4 was a battle-station, designed to protect the civilian one, Babylon 5. But something weird happened. The day before the inauguration, every alarm in B4 went off. Everybody evacuated, and then the whole damn station just vanished - flickered and went out like a holo in a power cut!
"Rather than waste more time and money building a sixth station, the Council just added more to B5 to accommodate the military, and here we are! B5 is about three-quarters the size of the old Citadel and around five million people from God knows how many species live and work here. Everyone from diplomats and millionaires to the duct-rats we can never seem to get rid of.
"Embassies coming up!"
Everything had gone without a hitch, unsurprisingly, and the minbari were now officially an associate race of the Council. There had been the usual half-hearted grumble from the volus ambassador about why his race – the third, he pointedly reminded them, to reach the Citadel - was yet to be granted a Council seat. The krogan Councillor had pointed out that the vorcha had made the same demand, and look what happened to them! Urdnot Grunt was the nearest thing his people had to a polished diplomat, and he certainly had a way of bringing people round to his viewpoint!
That out of the way, Vega had excused himself from the reception afterward. His presence was no longer necessary, and he had little time for stuffed shirts and less for diplomatic double-talk. He exchanged greetings with the Stations' Alliance CO, Colonel Sinclair, under whom he'd served in the Vorcha War, and the Head of B5 Security, Commander Garibaldi, before heading for the apartment the Council kept for him here.
A quick change, and Vega hit Zakera Ward. Some shopping -upgrades for his armour and omni-tool – a meal and a beer or two made him feel almost human again. He was thinking about hitting up Purgatory or Fusion when a call from an old friend brought him back to the Presidium.
The residence of the turian Councillor was a typically plain and severe building by contrast with the graceful asari house on one side and the imposing classical krogan edifice on the other. Inside, it was equally Spartan: every turian either was or had been a soldier and was expected to live in that simple style.
The private rooms to which Vega was shown were a little different. Still austere, but comfortable. Panelled walls from Earth, landscape paintings depicting scenes from both Palaven and Rannoch. An old M-98 Widow sniper rifle hung over the fireplace in the study.
The couple who greeted him warmly were at once two of the most respected and controversial figures on B5.
Councillor Garrus Vakarian, of the Turian Hierarchy, was a former C-Sec operative turned vigilante turned Special Advisor to the turian military. One of the first people to believe in Commander Shepard about Saren and the Reapers, Garrus' loyalty to his human friend had almost cost him everything. That, and his cavalier approach to rules. After the Reaper War, Garrus had been made a General, and his unorthodox approach had been valued during the chaotic period of reconstruction. Later, as times settled to normal, the Hierarchy decided that the best way to utilise their wild-card General was to capitalise on his experience with other species, so they had made him a Councillor. And got him out of their crests.
His companion, and lover, Tali'Zorah vas Normandy, was the quarian Councillor and another friend and follower of Commander Shepard from the early days. Unlike many of her people since the reclamation of Rannoch, Tali had continued to use her 'ship name'. She had been dubbed 'vas Normandy' as a jibe at a time when she had been under investigation for treason to the Migrant Fleet. Later, as an Admiral, she had kept the name as a way to show her disinterest in Fleet internal politics. Now she used it as a memorial to her old friend and Commander.
For two Councillors to be in an acknowledged relationship was unusual, but as Garrus had pointed out, it was at least more honest than the salarian Councillors discreet asari 'therapist' or the asari Councillors' 'private meetings' with Colonel Sinclair! After that, nobody felt like objecting.
"First things first!" Garrus said, handing Vega a glass of whiskey. Tali was already holding her turian brandy and now Garrus raised his glass.
"Here's to us." He said.
"Who's like us?" James asked.
"Damn few," Tali finished, "and they're all dead!"
They drank, then sat down.
"OK." Garrus said. "Kaidan and Grunt say hello and sorry they can't be here. Both of them have other things to see to."
"Besides," Tali added. "we try not to all meet up too often. The other Councillors call us 'Shepards' Gang' and they think we're plotting against them!"
"Not quite." Garrus amended. "Well, the salarian Councillor might. Matriarch Galina is just a little sulky because the asari aren't top dogs in the Council any more. Time was, they got the final say in most things, but now…"
"Humanity and your people took the brunt of the Reaper attack, and both the asari and salarians were slow to commit to the war." James said. "People remember that, especially the associates."
"Which is why," Tali told him, "they've been in such a rush to raise the minbari to associate status. They need a client race to back them up in there. The volus will back the turian view, because both their economies depend on it. The hanar and elcor both go their own way and the geth will support both human and quarian initiatives. The vorcha lost their Embassy and the batarians are dying out. The fact is, the asari don't have a dependable voice in the embassy quarter, they're afraid their influence is waning."
"But that's not why we asked you here, James. We wanted to see you again, sure, but we need your help as well."
"About the minbari?" Vega asked. "'Cause they seem decent people."
"Most of them are." Tali allowed. "The Workers and Religious, anyway. Seems that some of the Warrior-caste clans aren't any too happy about their connection to the asari and the associate status. They think they should have built up their military for a few years, then come in force and demanded a Council seat. We might have trouble from them down the line.
"But the problem is clear over the other side of the Galaxy. Ships are going missing in the Terminus Systems. At least five in the last two months."
"What, again?" Vega growled. "Who is it this time?"
"That's what we need to know." Garrus told him. "Back in the day, we'd have said batarian slavers, but the batarians don't have the means or the energy anymore.
"Shepard blew the Collector Base to Hell, Harbinger is dead and the Omega Relay was never rebuilt, so that's out. Could be the vorcha, but the krogan keep a pretty sharp eye on them and Wrex hates slavers.
"But the Terminus Systems are called that because they mark the furthest point of explored space. We don't know what might be out there."
"What about the mercs?" Vega asked.
Garrus shrugged. "The Blood Pack were wiped out in the Reaper War. Eclipse are what they always were -a crime syndicate. Mostly drugs, protection and arms smuggling. They were never slavers, anyway. They prefer mechs to organic labourers.
"As for the Blue Suns, they're just Aria T'Loaks' enforcers, now. More likely to shoot up slavers than take part in the trade.
"Which just leaves the new kids on the block; the Warsworn."
"Yeah, I heard of them." Vega said. "Not like the others, I'm hearing?"
"Very unlike." Tali said. "They provide security, bodyguard and merchant escort services for people who don't rate military protection. They've also rooted out vorcha nests, crippled a few Eclipse drug and arms smuggling rings and taken down several Cerberus hold-out bases.
"They do the job, they don't over-charge, and they won't touch anything illegal."
"Do we know who heads them up?" Vega wanted to know.
Garrus shook his head. "No. Their main contact is Commander Miranda Lawson -who we all know from the old days. She's the one who makes the deals, but she's very clear that she answers to someone else. Someone they call the 'Grey Warden', or just 'the Warden'."
"The Illusive Man, maybe?" Vega suggested. "He disappeared, and we never found a body."
"Possible, but unlikely." Garrus noted. "The Warsworn recruit from all races, not just humans. There are even some hanar working for them. We don't think the Warsworn are behind the disappearing ships.
"We want you, James, as a Spectre, to look into this. Joker has agreed to give you the Iwo Jima and her crew. You'll have all the Spectre authority and resources you need, but remember that in the Terminus Systems that won't count for much!"
"This an official job, then?" James asked.
"Mostly." Garrus allowed. "But you know how things are out in Terminus. The Council has no real jurisdiction there, and most of the colonies are unofficial ones that don't even answer to their own governments. We'll back you up when and if we can, but you might just find yourself on your own out there."
"It also means that we can't send a fleet out if you get in trouble." Tali warned. "A lot of the colonies would see that as an attempt to end their independence. They don't have big fleets, most of them, but nobody wants a shooting war out there."
"So just one Spectre, and one fast, stealthy frigate." James noted. "Sounds kinda familiar, don't it?"
"Familiar enough that I wish I could go with you." Garrus admitted. "I'm getting a little rusty, I could do with a work-out!"
"I could too." Tali said firmly. "But we both have jobs to do, Councillor Vakarian, so don't get any ideas!"