Day 78,101 of Exile / the Moreh / Zaal'Koris

Zaal has always thought of himself as a pragmatist. Somebody who believes in results, not theories. Somebody who cares about people more than ideas. Other species can afford to fight amongst themselves in favour of one belief system or another: they have the numbers to spare, after all. The quarians don't have that luxury. They have to do what they can to survive, using whatever methods they find that work, or they'll vanish from the galaxy.

But pragmatists are in short supply on the Admiralty Board these days.

That's why Zaal and his fellow admirals have just spent the last hour discussing a minor bit of graffiti. Rael'Zorah had brought it up at today's weekly meeting, just when Zaal had been hoping to wrap things up.

A routine maintenance patrol had picked it up last night: a terse message, seemingly burnt into the outer hull of one of the liveships. The patrol hadn't seen any sign of the culprits, and - although the area was meant to be covered by security cameras - there was no evidence on the vid recordings either, and no sign that they'd been tampered with.

The best guess at the moment seemed to be that the perpetrators had tampered with the last set of repairs, somehow: inserting a specially engineered steel plate that looked normal at first but which would reveal its hidden message after a certain amount of exposure to the vacuum. Clever enough, Zaal supposed, though it was a shame to see such ingenuity being wasted on trivialities like this.

It wasn't the technical aptitude of the vandals that had prompted Admiral Rael to bring it up, of course. It was the message itself. Just two simple words, in the ancient language of the homeworld: Mered'vai Rannoch.

Forget Rannoch.

Rael'Zorah had been incandescent, of course. Zaal hadn't bothered to point out that that was probably exactly the result whoever had placed the message had wanted. Mered'vai Rannoch was the rallying call of the Nedas movement - young quarians calling for an end to Exile, for the resources of the Fleet to be spent on acquiring new permanent colonies, on planets more welcoming than geth-occupied Rannoch. And for all Rael's suggestions of sabotage, or implications of mutiny, there was no sign of any real damage to the ship or any evidence that damage had been intended. Whatever Rael might think, support for ending the Exile isn't a crime.

Zaal doesn't have much sympathy for the Nedas movement himself. He's a pragmatist, after all. Frankly he thinks their fanaticism is just another side of the same coin as Rael'Zorah's. Sometimes Rael talks about retaking Rannoch as if it's something he expects to see accomplished within months. Zaal finds that confidence misplaced. Unnerving.

The dream of retaking Rannoch is important, of course. He certainly wouldn't dispute that. It gives the Fleet a common purpose, something to unite around beyond mere survival.

But Zaal has no illusions that it's a dream he'll live to see it realised. That's not important. What's important is that the Fleet sticks together: there is safety in numbers, safety in being able to stay together and leave systems quickly when trouble draws close. No planetary settlement would be able to offer that, even if the Nedas movement were able to acquire rights to the sort of garden world they dream about.

No, he thinks: much better to stay together with the Fleet, and keep making slow and steady progress towards retaking Rannoch at some unspecified future point. He'd never admit it in public, of course, but he doesn't think that they'll be any closer to Rannoch a century from now.

Honestly, he doesn't think that that's important either.

Zaal's tired. He wants to go home. He doesn't like this ship: the Moreh is a strange place: a former asari vessel repurposed by the Special Projects group, its proportions never seem quite right to him, its crew whisper and gossip amongst themselves in jargon he barely understands. He certainly doesn't like its captain. Sometimes he thinks that Daro'Xen cares more about understanding the geth than she does about understanding her fellow quarians.

No, he wouldn't spend any time here by choice. But he has a job to do. As the token representative of the Civilian Fleet on the Admiralty Board, he has to try to keep fighting.

It might have been easier if he wasn't perpetually in the minority, of course. Almost always fighting a losing battle against the allied forces of Rael'Zorah and Han'Gerrel and Daro'Xen. Some days the temptation to just give up is almost overwhelming.

But he can't. Somebody has to make a stand for what's right. To put the real needs of today's living, breathing quarians over fantasies of reclaiming Rannoch or of subverting the geth through some clever trick of programming or engineering. To make the case for pragmatism, however unpopular it might be.

On the bad days, he reminds himself that if firebrands like Rael'Zorah and Han'Gerrel were left to their own devices, the Fleet would most likely be at war with the Hierarchy already, over some perceived slight or other. He's managed to talk the Board down from anything like that, at least. They can mock him as a coward all they like, if that's what they need to do to justify seeing sense.

And the latest Admiral, the Patrol Fleet's Shala'Raan, has proven to be something of a surprising ally, these past few weeks. Zaal suspects Rael regrets casting the deciding vote to accept her nomination. He hopes he does, anyway: certainly Zaal regrets voting against her. Perhaps they'd both made the same assumptions about how an old friend of the family would come to cast their votes.

Of course, even with Admiral Raan's occasional dissent, Admiral Zorah still has a firm majority. Which means the Fleet's scare resources will still pour into Xen's Special Projects group, and plans for the forever war against the geth will always be prioritised over any attempt to chart a new course for the quarian people. Rael's latest crusade against the Nedas movement is only the latest in an ongoing campaign to label any doubters as traitors, to accuse anybody urging caution of cowardice.

Not that the Nedas movement has many supporters, of course. If anything, Rael's majority position on the Board underestimates how popular a figure he is across the Conclave and the wider Fleet. Sometimes things are posted on the extranet, of course, but people on the extranet can be found who'll agree with almost anything. Whatever Rael claims to believe, Zaal would be shocked if even a single member of the Conclave could be found who supported the Movement, even among the smaller ships of the Outriders' Coalition.

No, the fanaticism of the Nedas movement isn't the threat that keeps Zaal up at night. The fanatics he worries about are closer to home.

Privately, Zaal hopes that Rael'Zorah's daughter's Pilgrimage is less of a triumph than everybody seems to expect. Not that he has anything personal against the girl. He's never even met her. But the last thing the Fleet needs in these troubled times is more public acclaim for the Zorah clan.

Waiting in a strange ship for his shuttle to arrive gives him time to think. He wishes that it didn't: his thoughts these days tend to be darker than he'd like. He's getting old, he thinks. Losing faith in the idea that a better future is possible.

The galaxy has changed since his Pilgrimage, and not for the better.

With a new expansionist military power seizing control of worlds in the Traverse, it's becoming even harder for the Fleet to acquire the resources it needs to survive. The humans seem to be everywhere these days: stirring up trouble with the Hegemony, butting heads with the Hierarchy, starting trade wars with the volus. Taking by force the things that they want, while the Council stands by and does nothing to stop them.

At least the geth are still quiet. If the geth ever cross the Veil, then everything he's tried to do for the Fleet will come crashing down. Of course, from the way Rael'Zorah talks, it's only a question of when, not if, that happens.

Yes, these are dangerous times. Dangerous courses for the Fleet to navigate.

But his people are survivors. They survived the Geth War, they've survived centuries of Exile. And he thinks - he hopes - that they'll survive the leadership of Admirals Daro'Xen and Rael'Zorah.

He just isn't sure, sometimes, whether he will.

Day 78,203 of Exile / Feros / Tali'Zorah

She can't quite believe it's over.

Even now, she half-expects to turn a corner and see geth infiltration units bursting up from below the ground, or to descend some stairs and be surrounded by the creeping, moaning thralls of the Thorian. She's amazed at how quickly everything seems to have returned to normal. Or at least what passes for normal on Zhu's Hope.

Only hours ago, the geth had seemed to be everywhere. Lurking in the dark ruined tunnels beneath the colony, laying in ambush along the skyway, swarming like insects through the ExoGeni headquarters. She'd never seen so many of the machines working together before.

Shepard and Alenko had put up a brave front - they'd fought the geth together on Eden Prime, she'd reminded herself - but Tali had been close to panic.

These were the geth - the machines that had stolen her ancestors' home; killed so many of her people. As a child she'd grown up on stories about them; about the atrocities they'd committed, the threat that they represented. But they'd always stayed beyond the Veil. They'd always been a problem for the future, not something to be faced in the present. Suddenly they were here: crossed over the Veil and poised to take over the galaxy. Not just one or two isolated units, but what seemed like a whole army.

She couldn't quite believe that they had a chance. Not against so many.

But they'd won. Somehow. They'd fought until she could barely stand, pushing herself past what she'd thought were the limits of her endurance. And now the geth are gone - their war machines destroyed or fled - and the strange plant creature that had tried to take over the colony has been defeated.

And the colonists are alive.

That's the part that seems the most miraculous.

When Shepard had confronted the ExoGeni representative, when the same representative had decided to point his gun at her - at that point, Tali had dreaded what was coming. She'd thought they were heading for a massacre. When they'd made it back to the colony, and seen the Thorian-controlled colonists moving like machines among the plant monsters, she'd been almost sure of it.

And yet the colonists are alive.

Shepard had whispered her orders, as they'd crawled carefully down towards the Thorian's hidden lair. Stun grenades only. No lethal force. Even when the colonists were trying their best to kill them, they'd stuck to those rules. Even as their supply of gas grenades had started to dwindle, even when it seemed impossible to tell brainwashed humans from moaning thralls.

Now Tali is wandering peacefully through crowds of the very colonists who had tried so hard to kill them mere hours ago.

And the colonists themselves seem almost friendly. It's as though nobody's told them that they should be blaming her people for the geth. Which, she supposes, is almost literally true: cut off from the rest of the galaxy as they have been, she might be the first quarian these people have ever met.

She's not really sure what she's going to do with herself for the rest of the day.

After the Commander announced shore leave for the crew, Liara had dragged Shepard off to investigate the Prothean ruins underneath the colony. Wrex had invited himself along as well, once he heard the rumours of a pack of varren living in the ruins.

That made Tali the only alien above ground, other than the strange asari they'd rescued from the thorian. After a brief trip outside, Vakarian had muttered something about needing to work on the Mako and retreated back to the Normandy. There was still a small skeleton crew on board, including Adams and the XO.

It was certainly true that the Mako needed some work. They'd picked up plenty of damage on their journey to ExoGeni headquarters, not least when Shepard had decided to ram headfirst into a geth armature. But Tali hadn't missed the suspicious looks the colonists were giving him. And she didn't think he had either. The colonists might not have heard much about quarians, but Tali didn't think there were any humans in the galaxy who didn't have an opinion about the turians.

She'd have stayed in the ship herself, if Vakarian wasn't there. But Vakarian is there, and she doesn't want to speak to him right now. So she's just wandering around aimlessly, staring at the crude shelters amid the ruins and wondering how people can get used to living somewhere so remote, where the sky is so wide and empty.

"You know, the Commander grew up on a small colony like this."

Alenko is so quiet and self-effacing that she'd barely noticed he was there.

"Shepard grew up in a place like this?" she asks, curiously.

She really doesn't know much about the Commander, she thinks. The human has spoken to her several times now, between missions, but never reveals much about her past.

"Well, not exactly like this," Alenko says with a wry smile, gesturing in the direction of the strange Prothean architecture and the scattered remains of Thorian plant-matter yet to be cleared away. "But she was a colony kid, yeah. Grew up working a farm and everything, just like in the propaganda vids."

Living on a planet of your own - one you were born on, where you can grow real food - sounds wonderful. She can't imagine ever wanting to leave that, and says so. The human looks worried, then, as if he's afraid he's said the wrong thing.

"What happened?" she asks.

"Batarians," a low voice growls behinds them.

Chief Williams still frightens her a little bit, even after all these weeks aboard the ship.

"Batarian pirates hit the colony in 2170," the Lieutenant explains, acknowledging the other human's presence with a nod. "Overwhelmed the planetary defences. The colony was in the Traverse: far away from the bulk of the Alliance fleet. It took a long time for anybody to respond to their distress signals."

Tali shudders. She's never seen a batarian up close, but Auntie Raan used to tell stories which … well, she hopes they were exaggerated. There are reasons the Fleet never stays long in batarian space.

"Shepard made it out," Alenko says. "But her family weren't so lucky. She was sixteen. It must have been … well, I guess there's a reason she doesn't talk about it. Bad memories. But she signed up for the Alliance military soon after that."

"I didn't know." Tali says weakly.

She suddenly remembers talking to Shepard about her father. Well, talking at Shepard about her father, really. About how hard it was for her, growing up. About trying to live up to her people's expectation of her, as her father's only daughter. As if having a father people knew and respected was something to feel bitter about. If she'd known that Shepard's own parents were dead, she wouldn't have dared.

She can't imagine a galaxy without her father in it.

"Did you grow up on a colony yourself, Lieutenant?" asks Williams.

"Me?" Alenko seems surprised to be asked. "No, I grew up on Earth. My parents served with the Alliance, but I didn't even make it off-planet until I was recruited for Brain Camp."

The name doesn't seem to mean much to Williams. It certainly doesn't mean anything to Tali.

"Biotic acclimation and temperance training," he explains. Apparently that's clarification enough for the Chief. Tali decides she'll look it up later, if it's important.

"Anyway," he says, "What I was trying to say is that the Commander was never going to let anything happen to these colonists if she could help it. Protecting people like this: that's the whole reason Shepard joined the Alliance."

Tali notices Williams frown slightly, as if she's going to disagree. But she doesn't say anything. Perhaps Tali hasn't become as good at reading alien expressions as she thought.

"What's Earth like?" Tali asks, curiously.

"Well," Alenko says, thoughtfully. "It's crowded, I guess. Most humans still live on Earth. Only a few million of us have moved out to the colonies. That leaves about ten billion on Earth, give or take a billion."

There aren't even twenty million quarians in the whole galaxy. She can't imagine taking a population of billions for granted.

"I've never been to Earth," offers Williams. "My parents left a few years before I was born. Mom had relatives in South America, but they all seem to have emigrated over the last decade or so. Mom always used to say she was glad she didn't have to bring up kids on Earth."

Kaiden nods at that.

"Well, it's not as bad as it used to be," he says. "But yeah, things were pretty rough for a while, especially in the 21st century. In hindsight, we were lucky to find the Prothean ruins when we did."

The quarians had found their own Prothean ruins centuries ago, Tali reflects. Long before the geth, before the Exile. Were her ancestors as optimistic and confident about their future then as the humans seem to be now? Had they taken their homeworld for granted as much as the humans seemed to?

While she's thinking, the two humans exchange a glance that Tali has trouble interpreting.

"You think a lot of the Commander," Williams says. "You served with her long?"

"She's a good CO," Alenko says. He sounds a little defensive, Tali thinks. She's not sure why.

"She is," says Williams carefully. "Best CO I've had, for sure. But I'm just saying that-"

The Lieutenant shakes his head.

"Trust me, Chief," he says. "She always does the right thing."

Tali never does get around to looking up details on human biotic training.

Day 78, 347 / the Normandy / Tali'Zorah

The Normandy feels different now. Emptier, for all that they picked up a half-dozen new occupants when leaving Virmire. The crew talk more quietly, laugh less. Everyone seems just a little bit more on edge.

She supposes that that makes sense. After all, they've left somebody behind

Tali's alone in the engineering room right now. Adams is outside conferring with the salarians about something or other, and the rest of the crew are asleep, trusting her (and the ship's in-built VI) to alert them if they're needed. Tali's never needed as much sleep as the humans seem to though. And besides, she's having trouble sleeping tonight.

When the door to engineering slides open, she thinks it's Adams at first.

But it's not him. Somebody else has trouble sleeping.

Williams is still wearing the armour she wore when they lifted her off from Virmire. It's cracked and burnt in dozens of places. She looks terrible. Tali's surprised that the doctor let her out of the med-bay.

She thinks Williams has come looking for Adams, at first; that she'll leave when she sees he's not there. But she doesn't leave. The marine just stares into the drive core, watching the shimmering fields of dark energy spiral and reform as the ship burns through eezo. Tali wonders what she's seeing.

Williams clears her throat, still staring, unseeing, at the ship's core.

"I'm sorry, Kaiden," she said quietly. "Wherever you are, I hope you know that. I just ..."

She trails off.

"'in words, like weeds, I'll wrap me over: like coarsest clothes against the cold'," she says, as if reciting from memory. Tali doesn't know who she's speaking to. "'But that large grief which these enfold is given in outline and no more. That loss is common would not make my own less bitter, rather more. Too common. Never morning wore to evening but-'"

Williams takes a step back and seems to notice Tali's presence for the first time.

"Uh. That's from a poem," she says, suddenly awkward. "Tennyson. My Dad used to - well, it doesn't matter."

Everything is quiet except for the gentle hum of the engines. Neither of them speak. Tali doesn't think she'll ever get used to how quiet this ship can be.

"It should have been me," Williams says flatly, just when Tali thinks she's going to leave without speaking. "I told her …"

Tali isn't sure how to respond to that. She hadn't been there herself: she'd been on the ship with Joker and Adams. But she remembers staring at the screen in shock when the bomb went off. Even at the last, a part of her had thought Shepard would find someway to save them both.

"I'll miss him," Tali says sadly. It doesn't feel like enough, but she doesn't know what else she can say.

"Me too." says Williams, half turning to look back at the warp core. Another awkward silent minute passes before she speaks again.

"It just seems … overwhelming," the Chief says. "Like there's nothing we can do. Saren's working for some sort of ancient AI, messing with people's heads, planning to take over the galaxy. That ship, Sovereign. It talked about killing us all, wiping out galactic civilization like it was nothing. Like we were nothing."

She sounds angry now, a little bit more like the person Tali remembers from their first meeting.

"Fighting geth, fighting krogan," she continues, "All that made sense. How are we supposed to fight something like this?"

Tali just shakes her head. She'd seen Shepard's confrontation with the AI - with the Repear - through the screens as well. Ancient AI that the geth worship as gods? A part of her still doesn't want that to be true. Williams doesn't seem to need any more response.

"I almost killed Wrex yesterday," the human says. "He really got into it with the Commander. I thought he was going to try to attack her. And I wasn't going to let that happen."

She pauses, glances back over her shoulder in the direction of Wrex's usual spot. The krogan's not there at the moment, Tali knows: he's sleeping like the rest of them, wherever it is he's found to sleep. But Williams lowers her voice all the same.

"Don't get me wrong, I don't have a problem with Wrex. But if it came down to him or the Commander? I mean-"

She shakes her head, lets the sentence trail off unfinished. Tali almost understands, she thinks. Loyalty to the ship's Captain has to come first, after all. If a human visited the Rayya and threatened the safety of its captain, she'd do whatever she had to do to stop them.

But to talk so casually after the fact about betraying a crewmate: somebody you've worked with, somebody you've lived on the same ship as - that's something she finds hard to understand. Maybe it's different for non-quarians, she thinks.

"But I remembered what Kaiden said, back on Ferros," Williams continues. "That Shepard always does the right thing. So I waited. And she did. That time."

"Well, I'm glad you didn't kill Wrex." says Tali, her voice sounding uncertain in her ears. She wonders why the Chief is telling her this. Maybe she's just the nearest person available who'll listen.

She'd been worried how Wrex would react on Virmire, of course. Everybody had picked up on it. Wrex didn't talk about his people much, most of the time, but she'd never believed his claim to have given up on them. How would she have reacted if Saren had been offering the prospect of reclaiming Rannoch from the geth?

But she wasn't surprised that Wrex had agreed to go along with the plan. He'd met Saren, after all. He knew the turian couldn't be trusted. And she thought he respected Shepard, too, though he'd never quite said it. He's not like the stories her people tell about the krogan.

"Have you ever lost anybody close to you before, Tali?" asked Williams abruptly. "I mean, if it's not too personal a question."

"My mother," Tali replies, after a moment's hesitation. "When I was much younger. She got sick, and -"

It sometimes feels like she's spent hours explaining to the rest of the crew why she needs to wear her suit. Trying to describe what the Exile has done to the quarians' already fragile immune systems, why she can't risk exposure to unknown pathogens or infections. Williams, she realises belatedly, has been one of the only humans she hasn't had that conversation with. One of the few who hadn't seemed to expect an explanation.

"Damn, that's awful, Tali." Williams says. "I'm sorry. "

She looks directly at Tali for the first time, meeting her eyes through her suit's faceplate.

"My dad passed away a few years ago," she offers. "I still miss him. Visit his grave, when I get the chance, but it's not …"

The human's voice trails off, and the ship falls silent until she clears her throat.

"Sometimes I'm reading a book or somebody tells me a tall story, and I think how much Dad will enjoy hearing about this. And that's when it hits me again. He's gone. He's really gone."

Williams shakes her head, runs a hand over her face. She seems surprised to notice that she's still wearing her armour.

"Anyway," she says, wearily. "I've taken up enough of your time. I should get back to … well."

Tali finds her voice before Williams makes it to the door.

"Chief," she says "I'll miss Kaiden but ... I'm glad you're alive."

It's only when she says it out loud that she realises that it's true.